Former U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr., now chair of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, said African Americans in Mississippi are forced to vote in a system that was created to dilute their voting strength.

A lawsuit has been filed in federal court in the Southern District of Mississippi challenging a provision in the state Constitution that could potentially result in this year’s governor election being decided by the Mississippi House of Representatives.

The lawsuit filed Thursday on behalf of four African American registered voters in Mississippi asks a federal judge to block the provision of the state Constitution that requires a candidate for statewide officer to garner a majority vote and to win the most votes in a majority of the 122 House districts. The complaint alleges the provision violates the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act.

The federal lawsuit says the provision among other things “violates the one-person, one-vote principles by discarding all votes cast in each legislative district for candidates who fail to obtain a majority in that district.”

The mandate that a candidate win more than 50 percent of the vote “ensures that even when African-American preferred candidates generate enough support to win a plurality of votes, they are unlikely to be elected,” the complaint said.

The lawsuit points out the provision was inserted in the 1890s Constitution as one of the methods to prevent black Mississippians, who at the time were in the majority, from winning statewide office. The lawsuit cites a volume of the Mississippi Historical Society as saying the  Constitution was written in 1890 in a manner to ensure the white minority controlled the House of Representatives and was “the legal basis and bulwark of the design of white supremacy in a state with an overwhelming and growing negro majority.”

At one time other Southern states, such as Georgia, had similar electoral provisions.

“For more than a century, African Americans in Mississippi have been forced to vote in an electoral system that was intentionally created to dilute their voting power,” said former U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder, Jr., who is chair of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which is involved in the lawsuit. “Mississippi’s long, sordid history of racial discrimination and politicians who exploit racial divisions only perpetuate this broken system in which African-American interests are woefully underrepresented in the state government. This lawsuit seeks to level the playing field so that African American voters are finally able to exercise their right to elect the candidates of their choice to lead Mississippi.”

In Mississippi, the provision last came into play in three consecutive elections in the 1990s. In 1999 Republican Mike Parker lost the popular vote but refused to concede to Democrat Ronnie Musgrove in the race for governor. Musgrove won a plurality of the votes and both candidates won the most votes in 61 House districts.

By a vote of 86 to 36 the Democratic-controlled House elected fellow Democrat Musgrove. Most argued that it only made sense that the person who won the most votes should win the Governor’s Mansion.

In the 1991 race for lieutenant governor, no candidate garnered a majority vote, but incumbent Democrat Brad Dye sent a letter to the House conceding to the top vote-getter Republican Eddie Briggs.

Then in 1995, Briggs sent a letter to the House conceding to Musgrove who captured a majority of the vote for lieutenant governor, but did not win a majority of the House districts.

Many believe that this year’s gubernatorial election could be the most competitive since 2003 and could be thrown into the House. Attorney General Jim Hood, Mississippi’s only statewide elected Democrat, and Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves are the favorites to win their respective party’s nomination.

Hood or at least attorneys from his office could be put in the position of defending the constitutional provisions and opposing the lawsuit even though the lawsuit could potentially benefit him if the election was thrown into a state House likely to be controlled by Republicans.

In recent years, there have been proposals filed in most legislative sessions to try to eliminate the constitutional provisions, but they have not made it through the legislative process.

The National Redistricting Foundation, an affiliate of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, and the Mississippi Center for Justice filed the lawsuit on behalf of Leslie-Burl McLemore of Lake Cormorant, Charles Holmes of Jackson, Jimmy Robinson Sr, of Jackson and Roderick Woullard of Hattiesburg.

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.