Credit: Eric J. Shelton/Mississippi Today, Report For America

Almost 40% of legislators (69 of 174) will have no opposition this election cycle.

In other words, they can cast whatever vote they want for the remainder of the 2023 legislative session knowing they will not face any electoral consequences until at least 2027.

For decades, the qualifying deadline for state and local officials has been the ridiculously early date of March 1. Party primary elections normally are not until August while, of course, the general election is in November. Despite those late election dates, the Mississippi Legislature set a qualifying deadline of March 1, forcing people to make an early decision on whether they wanted to be on the ballot months later for political office against an entrenched incumbent — especially an entrenched legislative incumbent.

The reason for setting the early qualifying deadline was clear: to let legislators know early on about potential opponents, giving them time to take reelection friendly action during the final legislative session before voters go to the polls. In addition, the early qualifying deadline, it could be argued, gives incumbents a financial advantage since they normally have an easier time raising campaign contributions. By having an early qualifying deadline, candidates often feel they must be raising funds for a longer period of time.

The current crop of legislators, in their infinite wisdom, decided the March 1 qualifying was not early enough. In the 2021 session, they moved the qualifying deadline to an even earlier date: Feb. 1.

The bill, authored by Rep. Jody Steverson, R-Ripley, passed the House with five no votes. Interestingly, the five no votes were members of the ultra conservative Freedom Caucus. Besides receiving only five no votes in the House, it also had 19 co-sponsors, many of whom have no opposition this election cycle. All members of the Senate voted for the proposal, which incidentally was the only election-related bill to pass during the 2021 session.

The result is that for more than half of the final session before the 2023 elections, 46 House members in the 122-seat chamber and 23 senators in the 52-member chamber have known they would have no opposition this election cycle.

They are free to vote however they want knowing there is no way for the electorate to exact consequences on them for another four years. And in politics, four years is a lifetime.

And truth be known, a large number of additional incumbents have only third-party opponents who seldom win political office in Mississippi. Plus, because of gerrymandering, many legislators run in such heavily Republican or Democratic districts that opponents from the opposing party have virtually no chance of winning.

In other words, more than half of legislators are serving the final weeks of the 2023 session knowing they will be reelected this November.

Would there have been more candidates for legislative seats if the qualifying deadline had remained on March 1? Maybe.

Perhaps there would have been even more if the qualifying was April 1 or May 1.

After all, many argue that the electorate does not start really paying attention to the campaigns until a few weeks before the vote.

As a sidenote, the politician who could face consequences from the 2023 session is not technically a legislator, but is Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann who presides over the Senate. Hosemann faces a challenge from Jones County Sen. Chris McDaniel, who is touting himself as the true conservative in the Republican primary.

There are legislative outcomes that could impact the contest for lieutenant governor, such as the inability of Hosemann to ensure the passage of legislation to restore the initiative process that allows voters to bypass the Legislature and place issues on the ballot. That process was struck down in 2021 by the Supreme Court on a technicality. At the time, Hosemann, as well as other state leaders, vowed to fix the Supreme Court concerns and revive the process for voters.

As the 2023 session nears a close, the Legislature, in part because of actions by Hosemann, have not yet passed legislation to revive the process.

Incidentally, it will take a two-thirds vote of each chamber to pass the initiative legislation. Thanks to that early qualifying deadline, there are enough members running unopposed to block the restoration of the initiative process if they so choose, and do so without having to face any electoral consequences this election cycle.

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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.