Black Voters Sue Over Mississippi's Jim Crow-Era Election Law Four African Americans are suing over a Jim Crow-era election rule that requires statewide officeholders to win a majority of the popular vote and at least 62 of 122 Mississippi state house districts.
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Black Voters Sue Over Mississippi's Jim Crow-Era Election Law

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Black Voters Sue Over Mississippi's Jim Crow-Era Election Law

Black Voters Sue Over Mississippi's Jim Crow-Era Election Law

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now to Mississippi. Voters there will choose a governor and other statewide officers in November under a set of election rules that date to the 19th century. Those Jim Crow-era voting provisions, though, are now before a federal court. A group of black voters has sued, challenging the rules as racially discriminatory. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.

DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: The target of the lawsuit is what was called the Mississippi Plan.

PALOMA WU: The Mississippi Plan was a plan that was created in creating the 1890 Constitution to take political power out of the hands of African Americans, and it was extremely effective.

ELLIOTT: Paloma Wu is an attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center.

WU: It was famous because it was headlined to keep political power in the hands of white people who were outnumbered by freed black people and their descendants.

ELLIOTT: The framers explicitly stated it is the manifest intention of this convention to secure to the state of Mississippi white supremacy. To that end, they adopted a two-tiered path to win statewide office, like governor or attorney general. Candidates must get both a majority of the popular vote and win in a majority of Mississippi's 122 state House districts, 42 of which are majority black. Otherwise, the state House of Representatives gets to decide.

Longtime Mississippi Congressman Bennie Thompson, a black Democrat, calls it the end of a line of notorious Jim Crow disenfranchisement tools.

BENNIE THOMPSON: Whether it was poll tax or the Black Codes or what have you, there were a lot of things put in place down through the years that have been declared unconstitutional. To our knowledge, this is the last vestige of Southern discrimination in the electoral process.

ELLIOTT: African Americans are about 38% of Mississippi's population and tend to vote Democratic, while Republicans dominate the political landscape, including control of the Legislature. Since Reconstruction, there hasn't been an African American elected to statewide office. Thompson says the election system has been effective in limiting the opportunity for black politicians to seek statewide office.

THOMPSON: Under the present terms, there's just no way that I could win. I could win the popular vote and lose the vote of the Mississippi Legislature, and it would nullify the will of the people.

ELLIOTT: That's one of the arguments from four African Americans who are suing in a case backed by the National Democratic Redistricting Committee's Foundation. That's the political action committee headed by former Attorney General Eric Holder. The local attorney on the case is Rob McDuff with the Mississippi Center for Justice.

ROB MCDUFF: When you have a system like this that was conceived as part of the discriminatory plan and it still plays out to make it more difficult for African American voters to elect candidates of their choice, that's a violation of the Constitution.

ELLIOTT: The lawsuit names as defendants Mississippi House Speaker Philip Gunn and Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, both Republicans. They declined to comment on the lawsuit, as did Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood, who is running for governor and could be affected by the outcome of the case. In a court filing, private lawyers representing Gunn and Hosemann wrote, neither the speaker nor the secretary wish to defend the motivations behind a law allegedly enacted with racial animus - though they are seeking to have the case dismissed, arguing in part the timing of the complaint demonstrates it's about partisan politics, not race.

Plaintiff's attorney McDuff acknowledges the political nature of the lawsuit in an election year, but says that doesn't change the argument that Mississippi's system dilutes the power of black voters.

MCDUFF: Because of the way Mississippi's House of Representative districts are drawn and which make it more difficult for the candidate of choice of black voters to win a majority of the electoral districts than the candidate of choice of white voters.

ELLIOTT: In a statement, communications director Nicole Webb says the Mississippi Republican Party has no opposition to amending the Constitution to remove the contested election requirements, but questions the sincerity of former Attorney General Eric Holder's interest in the case, calling it a, quote, continuation of national Democrats' attempts to delegitimize elections they do not win.

Mississippi's two-tiered election test from the 1890 Constitution has only come into play once - in 1999. In that case, the Democrat won the popular vote for governor, but fell short of winning a majority of House districts. He was voted into office by a then-Democratic-controlled House of Representatives.

Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Jackson, Miss.

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