All these decades later, Lord Acton’s claim still holds true: Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
For a decade now, absolute power in Mississippi has been held by the Republican Party, at first by simple majorities in both chambers of the Legislature, along with the Governor’s mansion and, as of 2019, every state-wide elected office. Republicans have held a super-majority in both chambers since 2016.
For political junkies, this is a win at the highest level, a blow-out victory, total domination. In the game of politics, everybody wants to win and win big.
The Republican domination of state government is, generally, a reflection of the will of the people. But when one party holds such an advantage, there is nothing to curb excess, no real compromise, no restraint. And that would be equally true if the Democrats held the same degree of power.
But most people aren’t political junkies. There are bigger concerns to worry with. Folks are far more preoccupied with making a living, supporting their families and attaining their own definition of a good life. This is true no matter what political party they align themselves with.
But what Mississippians may support generally, they may not always support specifically, and ever increasingly we find that Mississippi’s GOP dominance in state government has gone from success to excess, to the point that Mississippians are pushing back.
So what happens when the actions of the Legislature conflicts with the will of the people? As of now, there is just one avenue available to them: the ballot initiative.
Under state law, Mississippians can bypass, even defy, the Legislature through amending the state constitution at the ballot box.
Since 2015, Mississippians have attempted to use that power twice and this year alone there are three ballot initiative efforts underway.
The Mississippi Legislature may be opposed to requiring the state to adequately fund public education, allow the use of medical marijuana for those suffering certain illnesses, expand Medicaid to the working poor, allow citizens to vote on whether the old state flag should be moth-balled or create an early-voting system.
The latter three issues are in the beginning stages of the process. Initiative 74 would put the flag issue on the ballot. Initiative 76 would expand Medicaid. The early-voting initiative has been filed, but not given a number or description.
To be placed on the ballot, a measure is required to have the signatures of 12 percent of the votes in the previous Governor’s election. In 2019, 884,911 votes were cast in the gubernatorial election. That means for any of these initiatives to be put onto the ballot, it must produce a petition with the signatures of 106,190 registered voters.
As is often the case, people with power aren’t easily convinced to yield it.
That’s been true of the two initiatives that did make it onto the ballot. In 2015, the Legislature placed its own education funding initiative on the ballot in an attempt to dilute support for the citizen-led initiative. It worked. The citizens’ initiative received substantially more votes than the Legislature’s initiative, but not enough to pass. The true will of the people was not reflected in the result.
Last November, citizens put medical marijuana on the ballot. Again, the Legislature offered a competing ballot initiative. The voters were wise to that this time, passing the citizens’ initiative by a commanding 3-1 margin.
But the GOP power structure wasn’t content to accept that the people had spoken. Madison mayor Mary Hawkins Butler, a staunch Republican with close ties to the GOP leadership, filed suit to have the vote overturned due to a technicality related to how the petition signatures were collected. This is like overturning the results of a ballgame because the referee missed an offsides call in the first quarter. When three-quarters of voters approve something, there can be little doubt it represents the clear will of the people. But that matters little to those who wield the power in this state. That’s arrogance of the highest degree.
That suit is now being heard by the Mississippi Supreme Court, an elected body that is also dominated by GOP members.
This could be the most consequential decision the state’s high court will have made in decades. The fate of the people’s ability to override the actions of the Legislature hangs in the balance.
If the people of Mississippi are denied the opportunity to tell the Legislature it has gone too far — or not far enough — the power of one-party government will be absolute to the detriment of us all regardless of political party preference.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is [email protected]