Poll workers assist voters at Casey Elementary during the runoff elections Tuesday, June 26, 2018.

Mississippi has its own unique electoral system that like the federal Electoral College for president could prevent the person with the most votes – even a majority of the vote – from being elected to  office.

Under the federal system, each state is awarded the number of electoral votes totaling its two senators and U.S. House members and a presidential candidate most win the state to capture those electoral votes, in most instances. The national popular vote total, in reality, has no determination on who is elected president.

The federal electoral system has at times been criticized as antiquated and undemocratic. Since the turn of the century, two presidents — George W. Bush in 2000 and Donald Trump in 2016 — have been elected after losing the popular vote and winning the necessary votes in the Electoral College.

The Mississippi system now faces a challenge as part of efforts incorporated into the state’s 1890 Constitution to ensure African Americans, then the majority in the state, were not elected to statewide office.

Under the state system, unless the candidate for statewide office captures a majority vote and wins the most votes in a majority of the 122 House districts, members of the House select the winner from the top two vote-getters.

Mississippi is the only state in the nation where a candidate could win a majority of the vote (50 percent plus one) and not win a statewide office.

The system is currently being challenged in federal court on the grounds it dilutes black voter strength.

Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, from left, Rep. Robert Foster, R-Hernando, and former Mississippi Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller Jr., stand as audience members take their photo during the Rankin County Republican Women’s “Meet the Candidates” event at the Brandon Municipal Complex Tuesday, May 21, 2019.

The three Republican candidates for governor this year – Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves of Rankin County, former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Bill Waller of Jackson and freshman Rep. Robert Foster of DeSoto County – declined to say whether they thought the person who won the most votes should win the office.

“No comment right now,” said Foster of DeSoto County. “I need more time to look into it.”

Waller, of Jackson, said: “As a potential state election commissioner it would not be appropriate for me to discuss pending litigation that could continue into next year.”

The state Election Commission consists of the governor, attorney general and secretary of state.

Lt. Gov. Jim Hood speaks supporters at the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson Thursday, February 28, 2019. Hood is running for governor of Mississippi.

Attorney General Jim Hood of Houston, the only statewide elected Democrat, and viewed as a leading contender for governor, said: “The candidate with the most votes should win, period. Every Mississippian’s vote should count. Those voters, not partisan politicians, should decide who they want to be their governor.”

Reeves’ campaign not only refused to say whether he thought the top vote-getter should win the office, but also criticized “Washington liberals” for attempting to change the Mississippi Constitution to ensure the person receiving the most votes is elected governor.

Parker Briden, a spokesman for Reeves, was referencing the fact that a group chaired by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder filed the lawsuit in federal court in the Southern District of Mississippi last month asking that provisions of the state Constitution that would allow the state House to select the governor be thrown out for violating the one man, one vote principle of the U.S. Constitution.

“Tate is going to win the most votes and the most (House) districts as the Constitution requires,” Briden said. “All candidates for governor should agree we don’t need Eric Holder and Barack Obama filing lawsuits to overturn any part of our Constitution.

“Any Mississippian who wants to change our Constitution can pursue that change through a voter initiative. This is a decision for Mississippians to make, not Washington liberals,”

The National Redistricting Foundation, which Holder chairs, and the Mississippi Center for Justice are participants in the lawsuit filed on behalf of four Mississippi voters. President Barack Obama, for whom Holder served as AG, is not involved in the lawsuit.

Mississippi politicians have a long history of criticizing so-called outside agitators for working to rollback Jim Crow laws, many of which were enshrined in the 1890 Constitution, that were written to prevent African Americans from voting and from holding public office. The same Constitution also regulated black Mississippians to inferior schools.

For example, during a 1961 news conference then-Gov. Ross Barnett responded to federal efforts to integrate the state by saying: “Mississippi can certainly handle its own problems, its own affairs without any outside help.” He said he had been on the phone with then-U.S. Attorney General Robert Kennedy telling him Mississippians could enforce the laws and Constitution of the state.

“There is too much work to be done in Mississippi for us to have to put up with a group of outside agitators trying to stir up strife and trying to stir up turmoil among our people for absolutely no good cause what so ever,” said Barnett.

During the same time period in the early 1960s, the “Southern Manifesto,” signed by most of the U.S. senators and House members from the South, complained about the “unwarranted exercise of naked judicial power” in terms of efforts to provide civil rights to African Americans.

When Briden was asked to comment on the fact his comment sounded similar to the statements made by Mississippi politicians in the 1950s, 60s and even later complaining of out of state groups working to help African Americans obtain civil rights, he replied, “Tate is focused squarely on winning this election under the Mississippi Constitution. If other candidates are not confident in their ability to win the election, and want help from Eric Holder’s lawsuit, they should say so. It’s as simple as that. Tate was not alive during the 1960s.

“He is leading Mississippi in the 21st Century. And we definitely do not need national liberals trying to tell us what to do in the 21st Century.”

The lawsuit the Reeves campaign criticized quoted Judge Solomon Calhoun, the president of the 1890 constitutional convention, as saying at the opening of the convention there “exists here in this state two distinct and opposite types of mankind” and that African American control of the government “always meant economic and moral ruin.”

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.”

The constitutional provision for most of the modern history of the state has not impacted Mississippi elections because the general elections for statewide office have not been close.

But in three straight elections in the 1990s there were contests where no candidate either garnered a majority vote or won the most House districts.

A lawsuit most likely was filed this year because for the first time since 2003 there is anticipated to a competitive November general election for governor.

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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.