Note: This analysis first published in Mississippi Today’s weekly legislative newsletter. Subscribe to our free newsletter for exclusive early access to weekly analyses.
Sometimes Mississippi Republicans introduce a bill so questionable that the most far-right fringes of their own party agree with the staunchest liberal Democrats in the state.
That rarity occurred last week regarding a Senate bill that would allow the state’s two major parties to set their own filing fees for statewide and legislative candidates who want to run for office. For decades, lawmakers have written those appropriately modest fees into state law, largely taking the politics out of the process.
But 30 Republican senators voted on Feb. 9 to make Mississippi just the fourth state in the nation to allow the major political parties to set those fees themselves.
If the bill passes and the Mississippi parties mirror their counterparts in those other three states, incumbents would be more protected from primary challengers, the bank accounts of both major parties would be a lot more flush, and many Mississippians who want to run for office would be unable to afford it.
Why would lawmakers pass a bill that could make it difficult for Mississippians to run for office? That was the first question asked last week of Sen. Joey Fillingane, the Republican who defended it on the Senate floor.
“When there’s little or no cost to running for office and putting your name on the ballot, it creates the opportunity for lots of mischief,” Fillingane said on the Senate floor, among the most public forums in the state. “… A lot of people just want to make fun of the system and just sort of, you know, not be serious about running for office. It would cause problems for those who are serious about running for office.”
Apparently feeling like he hadn’t admitted enough flaws with the bill, Fillingane — unprompted — continued his telling defense of the bill.
“You had a situation not too long ago where a truck driver put his name on the ballot, didn’t campaign, didn’t really run. He was running his 18-wheeler truck. He ended up winning a major party primary for a major office in Mississippi. I think you could argue that was a direct result of having extremely low filing fees in that particular race.”
Fillingane, of course, was referencing Robert Gray, who in 2015 won the Democratic nomination for governor. His summary of Gray’s unlikely primary victory was pretty accurate: Gray knew little about the political process, hadn’t run any real public campaign at all, and even his own mother didn’t know he was running.
But despite all that, Gray had what the vast majority of Mississippians have: An intense disdain for how elected officials have operated in Jackson for many years, and a desire to try to make their home state better. So the truck driver paid what was then a $300 filing fee to the state Democratic Party to put his name on the ballot. A few weeks later, he won the primary, and for the next several weeks, he had a massive platform to share his ideas for Mississippi. For better or worse, that’s American democracy.
In 2016, lawmakers increased the Mississippi filing fees for statewide and legislative races. Today, Mississippi Republicans or Democrats who want to run for office are between $250 and $1,000. State senators and state representatives must pay their parties $250 (up from the $15 filing fee before the 2016 change was passed).
The only three U.S. states that have given the power to set filing fees to their state parties are Alabama, Arkansas and Delaware. Here are the filing fees in those states:
- Alabama state senator: $925.14 for both major parties
- Alabama state representative: $925.14 for both major parties
- Arkansas state senator: $7,500 for Republicans, $4,500 for Democrats
- Arkansas state representative: $3,000 for Republicans, $3,000 for Democrats
- Delaware state senator: $945 for both major parties
- Delaware state representative: $945 for both major parties
All of these costs are much higher than Mississippi’s $250 across-the-board filing fees for state lawmakers. And running for statewide offices in Mississippi and those other states costs even more than the totals listed above.
When pressed last week on the Senate floor whether there were ulterior motives behind the Mississippi bill, Fillingane deflected. But by the end of the debate, ultra-conservative Republicans and Democrats were in agreement: The bill seemed sketchy, and it was a bad piece of legislation.
“To me, I think anybody who wants to run for office ought to be able to run for office,” said Sen. Angela Hill, the conservative Republican firebrand who is regularly chastised by establishment Republicans. “It shouldn’t be cost prohibitive for them to do it, and I don’t care what their reason is for running.”
To that point, Fillingane invoked the names of Vladimir Putin and Communist Russia, decrying governments that try to control every layer of a political process. Senate Republicans and Democrats alike jeered and booed Fillingane on the floor for making that comparison.
“Do you think the people back home should be worried we’re passing a law to help raise the fee to protect incumbency?” asked Sen. Rod Hickman, a freshman Democrat from Macon who was elected mid-term in November 2021. “From the small research I’ve done, states that have gone to this model go very high (with filing fees)… I think this is a bad bill.”
To that point, Fillingane replied: “People can go to the other party to run if they want to be upset about that.”
The bill, if passed by the House in coming weeks, would certainly raise money for both major parties. During floor debate, Sen. David Blount, a Jackson Democrat, said he spoke with Republican Party Chairman Frank Bordeaux, Gov. Tate Reeves’ hand-picked party chairman who said he pushed the bill because it would help the party raise money.
Political fundraising aside, the high fees could only stand to discourage most Mississippians from running for office, from sharing ideas about how they could better serve the state and help it grow — taking advantage of true American democracy.
Meanwhile, this bill can be added to the growing list of reasons most Mississippians feel that their elected officials aren’t really focused on problems that need to be solved.