Mississippi has the highest percentage of black citizens of any state in the nation. It hasn’t elected a black official statewide in more than 130 years. Jennifer Riley Collins wants to break that streak.
To become Mississippi’s first black attorney general, Collins, a decorated Army colonel and civil rights lawyer, is getting help from the country’s first black attorney general, Eric Holder. He’s leading a lawsuit aimed at the state’s 1890 constitution, which more than a century later still has provisions expressly crafted to stop blacks from getting elected.
If successful, the federal suit would scrap rules requiring candidates for statewide office to win both more than 50% of the popular vote and more than half the state’s 122 state legislative districts — two-thirds of which are majority white. If a candidate doesn’t meet both conditions, the state House of Representatives chooses the winner regardless of who got the most votes.
As racial divisions emerge in the 2020 presidential race, the litigation could rewire the power structure in one of the nation’s reddest states. Even if unsuccessful, it is bringing fresh attention to an extreme example of voter suppression: In Mississippi, racial animus is codified in the text that governs the state, lawyers and state politicians say.
“Our system was specifically designed to minimize the chances of an African-American being elected to statewide office in Mississippi,” said Democratic House Minority Leader David Baria.
The U.S. Supreme Court blessed partisan-drawn political boundaries in a June ruling, six years after the court weakened minority-voting protections across the U.S. But Mississippi stands out as an example of the consequences of gerrymandering on steroids.
In Mississippi, the voting-eligible black population is nearly 37% of the total — the highest of any state.
“I can’t think of another law I’ve been involved in challenging that was put in place specifically to discriminate against black voters and would have such a profound statistical effect on their ability to elect a state official statewide,” said Marc Elias, who is involved in the Holder case and a top Democratic elections attorneys.
Sharing a fish dinner with two colleagues at the Parlor Market near the Capitol in Jackson, Baria said the state’s election system is outrageous even among “the other racist states.”
The Holder suit was filed against Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann and Speaker of the House Philip Gunn, both Republicans. In response, attorneys for them rejected the claims of racial intent.
“Neither the Speaker nor the Secretary wish to defend the motivations behind a law allegedly enacted with racial animus,” the response stated. “However, both the allegations in the complaint and the timing of its filing demonstrate that this lawsuit is not about race, and it is not about vindicating alleged wrongs to plaintiffs’ rights to vote — it’s about partisan politics.”
The Mississippi power structure has survived both the Democrats who created it and the Republicans who now oversee it.
But just this week a federal appeals court affirmed a ruling that Mississippi’s legislature illegally gerrymandered a state Senate district in 2012 by adding a portion of a wealthy predominantly white county to the poorer Delta counties to dilute black voters there. About a third of the state’s blacks live in the Delta region.
The fight in Mississippi is part of a larger battle over voting rights prompted by the changing demographics of the electorate.
Holder is fighting gerrymandering across the U.S. with his National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which Elias said looks for “provisions that are going to affect the voting rights of individuals in ways that could, down the road, affect redistricting.”