Mississippi still would be in a distinct minority of states in electing its statewide officials – by mandating a runoff if no candidate garners a majority of the vote – under proposals that have passed out of committee in both the House and Senate.
Each proposal, though, eliminates the Jim Crow-era constitutional requirements, that if no candidate obtains both a majority vote and wins the most votes in a majority of the 122 House districts, then members of the House select the winner from the top two vote-getters.
Proposals have passed the Senate and House Constitution committee to eliminate the provision that could throw statewide elections into the House to decide. Both still have multiple steps remaining in the legislative process.
Senate Constitution Chair Chris Johnson, R-Hattiesburg, said the proposal to remove the provision that the House select the winner was being taken up in the legislative process, at least, in part, in response to a federal lawsuit.
U.S. Judge Daniel Jordan of the Southern District of Mississippi essentially delayed a lawsuit filed in 2019 that challenged the constitutionally of the “electoral provisions” of the state Constitution to give the state time to consider changing them. The lawsuit alleged the electoral provisions dilute the votes of black Mississippians and were placed in the 1890 Constitution to ensure African Americans, then a majority in the state, were not elected to 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.”
While the proposals passed in committees in both chambers would remove the provision that throws the elections into the House, the legislation would require all eight statewide officeholders to garner a majority vote. If no candidate obtains more than 50 percent of the vote in the November general election, there would be a runoff between the top two vote-getters either two weeks or three weeks later.
In all states except Louisiana, Vermont, Georgia and Mississippi, a candidate does not have to win a majority to be elected to statewide office. In most states a candidate can win with a plurality of the vote.
“In my opinion just because every state is doing that does not mean it is a better way,” said Johnson, who pointed out that former professional wrestler Jesse Ventura was elected governor of Minnesota in the late 1990s with less than 40 percent of the vote. He said statewide officeholders should have a majority of the vote to effectively govern.
Many other elected offices in the state do not require a majority vote, including in the general election for legislative seats.
Sen. David Blount, D-Jackson, who has filed bills just about every session to remove the provisions from the state Constitution, said he would prefer not to have a runoff, but said the more important issue is to remove the provision giving the House the authority to select the winner.
In the coming weeks, the proposals will be considered by the full chambers. Before the full chamber, Blount or any member could offer an amendment to allow the person winning the most votes – regardless of whether it was a majority – to win the office.
To amend the state Constitution through the legislative process takes a two-thirds majority of both the House and the Senate and the approval of voters during a November general election.
The constitutional provisions came into play in three elections in the 1990s – twice for lieutenant governor and once for governor. In all three instances, the House selected the candidate who garnered the most votes.
Under current law, Mississippi is the only state where a candidate for statewide office could win a majority of the vote and not be seated.
Under the Senate proposal, in the extremely rare instance where there is a tie vote for a statewide office, then election again will be thrown into the Legislature where both House members and senators will have a vote in deciding the winner. Each of the 122 House members will have one vote while each of the 52 senators will have two.