JACKSON — A federal judge is giving no indication of how or when he will rule in a lawsuit that challenges Mississippi’s unique, multistep process of electing a governor and other statewide officials.
U.S. District Judge Daniel P. Jordan III heard arguments Friday, just over three weeks before the state’s Nov. 5 general election.
He said there are few federal court rulings that provide clear guidance for how he should decide the case, which includes arguments over whether the electoral system violates the constitutional principle of one person-one vote and, if so, whether a violation occurs when voters cast ballots or at some point later in the process.
Jordan raised questions about the timing of the case that challenges a system in place nearly 130 years, and he said courts are “generally ill-equipped” to decide what kind of voting laws a state should have.
“No matter what I do, I would encourage the other side to appeal immediately,” Jordan said.
Mississippi’s 1890 constitution requires a statewide candidate to win a majority of the popular vote and a majority of the 122 state House districts. If nobody wins both, the election is decided by the House, and representatives are not obligated to vote as their districts did. The process was written when white politicians across the South were enacting Jim Crow laws to erase black political power gained during Reconstruction, and the separate House vote was promoted as a way for the white ruling class have the final say in who holds office.
Attorneys for African American plaintiffs say Mississippi’s history of racially polarized voting means that candidates preferred by black voters must receive a higher share of the statewide vote to win a majority of House districts. They are asking Jordan to issue a preliminary injunction to block the state from using the system.
“If elections in Mississippi were a racetrack, the finish line for the white-preferred candidate comes much earlier than for the African American-preferred candidate,” said one of the plaintiffs’ attorneys, Uzoma Nkwonta.
Attorney Trey Jones, representing the state defendants, asked Jordan to dismiss the lawsuit. Jones said the plaintiffs have not shown they will be harmed under the current system.
“If it happens, we’ll deal with it,” Jones said. “But it hasn’t.”
No other state in the U.S. uses such a method to choose governor, and it’s rare for a race to be decided by the Mississippi House. That last happened in 1999, when nobody received the required majorities in a four-person race for governor. The top two candidates were white, and each won 61 electoral votes. House members chose the Democrat who had received the most votes. At the time, the House was controlled by Democrats. It is now controlled by Republicans.
The two major-party nominees for governor this year are Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves and Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood. Both white, but Democrats generally fare well among black voters and Republicans among white ones.
The lawsuit was filed May 30 against two Republican officials — Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, who is Mississippi’s top elections officer, and House Speaker Philip Gunn, who would preside if there’s a House vote to decide a statewide race.
Jordan asked attorneys Friday about a 1963 U.S. Supreme Court decision ruling that struck down a Georgia election process as unconstitutional. It had a “unit system” for counting votes in statewide races, with each county receiving a certain number of units depending on population. Justices said the system violated the equal protection provisions of the U.S. Constitution.
“This claim has been available since 1963. That’s longer than I’ve been alive,” said Jordan, born in 1964.
Nkwonta said the plaintiffs are people from a variety of ages, including a 20-year-old who can vote in a governor’s race for the first time this year and retirees who faced previous barriers to African Americans’ ability to register as voters. He said all are entitled to a vote that has equal weight to other people’s votes.
Eric Holder, who was the first African American to serve as U.S. attorney general, is now chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, whose affiliated foundation is providing financial and legal backing for the lawsuit. Jones said the lawsuit is politically motivated to help Democrats. Nkwonta said the case has “nothing to do with electing Democrats.”