July 10, 2020 10:22:56 AM
Mississippi voters are going to have an interesting ballot to consider come this November.
In addition to weighing in on the presidential race, they will have three major state referendums to consider.
One they already know a lot about -- the decision on whether to approve a still-to-be-designed state flag to replace the recently shelved Confederate-themed one.
One they can expect to hear a lot about -- whether to legalize medical marijuana in Mississippi. There is going to be a lot of money and advertising thrown at that question, especially by the prolegalization forces.
One referendum, though, that might fly under the radar, but is arguably just as important as the other two, would enact a much-needed change to the rules by which Mississippi elects statewide officials.
Although most voters don't realize it, Mississippi operates a two-tiered election system that requires the winning candidate for statewide office -- governor through agriculture commissioner -- to receive not only a majority of the statewide vote but also the most votes in a majority of the state's 122 House districts. The reason most voters don't know about this complicated "electoral college" rule is because it has rarely come into play and when the tabulation is completed for it, it's several days, or even weeks, after the voting has ended.
The history of the provision, just like the history of the recently retired state flag, rightfully raises suspicions. It was added when Mississippi adopted a post-Reconstruction constitution in 1890, much of which was written to roll back economic and political gains that Blacks had made following the Civil War. It is believed that the two-tiered system was designed to thwart the chance of a Black candidate being elected to statewide office, since failure to clear both hurdles would throw the election into the House, where whites would presumably maintain a majority for generations to come.
The two-tiered system has been challenged in federal court. A decision there is on hold while the judge apparently waits to see what Mississippi voters do in November.
It's anticipated that if voters reject the initiative -- which would dump the "electoral college" and leave statewide contests solely to the popular vote -- the judge will rule against the state.
Even if voters approve the change, though, Mississippi may not be out of the woods. That's because the initiative would require a runoff of the top two candidates if neither one receives a majority of the votes cast -- that is, 50 percent plus one vote.
Although this is the system used in primary contests in Mississippi, in federal general elections, the winning candidate only needs to win a plurality -- that is, the most votes, even if the total comes out to less than 50% of all votes cast.
Using plurality as the bar, rather than majority, would be more conducive to the election of a minority candidate, not only a racial minority but also a partisan minority. That's how Republicans from Mississippi won their first U.S. Senate seat in the 1970s, when the Democratic vote got split between a white Democrat and a Black independent.
Mississippi voters should approve the initiative, but it would be better if it went by the same rules as federal elections.
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