Eric Holder says the system used for electing governors in Mississippi "has its basis in racism"

"In the 21st century, it’s finally time to say that this provision should be struck down," Eric Holder says

By Matthew Rozsa

Staff Writer

Published May 31, 2019 11:05AM (EDT)

Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder (Getty/Drew Angerer)
Former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder (Getty/Drew Angerer)

A new federal lawsuit against alleges the manner by which Mississippi elects its governors is racist, and former Attorney General Eric Holder is one of the driving forces behind it.

"The scheme has its basis in racism — an 1890 post-Reconstruction attempt to keep African-Americans out of statewide office," Holder said in a statement to the Associated Press. He added, "In the 21st century, it’s finally time to say that this provision should be struck down."

Holder, who became the nation's first African-American attorney general after being appointed to that position by former President Barack Obama in 2009, now chairs the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, which has an affiliated foundation supporting the lawsuit through both funding and legal backing.

During his tenure as Obama's attorney general, Holder defended the Voting Rights Act of 1965, criticized Republican-backed Voter ID laws and successfully sued Alabama's Shelby County for violating Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. He focused his tenure heavily on defending voting rights, which he felt were being threatened for political purposes.

"This is not a theoretical thing," Holder said. "We have seen no statewide African-American elected to office since this was enacted, in spite of the fact that Mississippi has the highest percentage of African-Americans of any state in the country."

The underlying issue is that Mississippi uses a convoluted system for electing its governors. In addition to requiring the winning candidate to have a majority of the vote — or, more than 50 percent of the counted ballots — the victor must also pick up a majority of the state's 122 House districts — or, at least 62 of them.

The lawsuit identifies several problems with this system. Because of the manner in which Mississippi's legislative districts have been drawn up, African-Americans are highly concentrated in certain districts and have a majority of the voting age population in 42 of them. Thirty-eight percent of the state's population is African-American. Moreover, only four other states require a direct majority of the vote to elect a governor: Arizona, Georgia, Mississippi and Vermont.

"This racist electoral scheme achieved — and continues to achieve — the framers’ goals by tying the statewide election process to the power structure of the House," the lawsuit alleges. "So long as white Mississippians controlled the House, they would also control the elections of statewide officials."

Although it is rare for a candidate to fail to meet both requirements set forward by Mississippi's constitution, it has happened. The most recent occasion was in 1999, when the state House was forced to choose between two white candidates in a four-way contest in which none of them received a majority of the popular vote.

And the complex constitutional requirements are not the only barriers African-American political candidates have faced in Mississippi. Until the mid-1960s, few African-Americans in the state were registered to vote, because poll taxes and violence widely disenfranchised them. It has also been notoriously difficult for African-American candidates to raise money in statewide elections, with candidates for governor and other offices in the state collecting less money this year than many of their white counterparts.

By Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer at Salon. He received a Master's Degree in History from Rutgers-Newark in 2012 and was awarded a science journalism fellowship from the Metcalf Institute in 2022.

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