By: Tamikia Carr Vasquez
In November, Mississippi voters will have the opportunity to vote on removing a Jim Crow era provision from the state’s constitution. Currently, to win certain statewide offices, a candidate must win the majority of the popular vote and win a majority of Mississippi’s 122 House districts. The Mississippi Center for Justice is at the forefront of leading the effort to abolish this procedure. In 2019, the Center worked on a federal lawsuit against the state. I recently spoke with Vangela M. Wade, President and CEO of the Center. This is the second and final part of our conversation. In Part I, we discussed the background of the current electoral process.
TCV: So this brings me to my next question: I’m in an election law class this semester and we’ve been talking about Baker v. Carr, one person one vote, and Harper v. Virginia State Board of Elections which eliminated poll taxes in state elections, and we talked about Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. With all of that precedent, how is it that in 2020 this state constitutional provision remains constitutional?
VMW: I believe it came up maybe twice before and the court basically said they aren’t changing it because that question is not ripe – time will cure it. In the case that we filed last May, McLemore v. Hosemann, the judge basically said you’re coming to me at the 9th hour. We’re about to have an election. The legislature needs to figure this out. I’m not going to get in the business of creating an electoral system when the legislature should take this on.
What finally brought the electoral scheme to the forefront was the social justice movement. In particular George Floyd and the Confederate flag issue. I will also say that Delbert Hosemann, who was the Secretary of State at the time we first filed this case and is now the Lieutenant Governor, was a big part of moving that flag issue forward. This is the season for people who will step up to step up, so I applaud him and his leadership in bringing this particular election issue to the ballot.
We just hope that people will pay attention to it. We know that people focus on the individuals who are seeking office, as opposed to referenda. This November, there’s the issue of legalizing medical marijuana on the ballot, which is presented with confusing language. I’m just hoping that this electoral initiative isn’t confusing and that people don’t just get tired of reading the details of the referenda. We are encouraging people to fully exercise their right to vote, which includes every issue that’s on the ballot.
Jim Crow is on the ballot. This is our opportunity to remove some of the vestiges of slavery and white supremacy from our constitution. We want one man, one vote, and for everybody’s vote to count equally. We can ensure that one group isn’t given more weight or more power than another simply because of skin color. It’s an opportunity to move Mississippi forward, especially since so many people have given their lives in the fight for just causes. We have an opportunity to join the fight by doing something as simple as marking a “yes” on the ballot.
TCV: Do you get a sense that it will pass due to the success of removing the Confederate emblem from the flag?
VMW: That didn’t take a vote of the people; that was the legislators and they were mobilized. Many of them worked on that for years. There’s a difference when it comes to the average everyday person deciding to exercise that vote. It’s one thing for people to go out and protest but where the rubber meets the road is the vote – when your vote affects the law. So I am hopeful that people will go vote, fully read the ballot, and that they will exercise their opportunity to have a voice, regardless of what their beliefs are or what their voice may be. Let’s make a difference where the voice counts, because it counts when you are marking that ballot. You can have that direct impact.
TCV: If the referendum fails, is it your sense that you would take up McLemore Part II and take this back into the courts?
VMW: Well, we certainly would be looking at every opportunity that we have to make sure that we continue to remove Jim Crow laws with clear intent to discriminate and to disenfranchise from our constitution. Everything that we do is to move forward, to continue striking these things down so that 20 years from now we’re not still talking about Article 5, Sections 140-143 of the Mississippi constitution. But, Mississippi didn’t ratify the 13th Amendment to the US Constitution until 2013; we tend to be a little slow.
TCV: Is there a PR campaign?
VMW: There is a coalition that is working hard to educate people about what’s on the ballot and to make sure that people get out to vote.
TCV: Before I let you go, what other issues are you watching in terms of voting rights either in this 2020 election cycle or for the next cycle of statewide elections?
VMW: Certainly, we are still grappling with absentee voting. We did receive the Mississippi Supreme Court’s Ruling on whether or not people who have preexisting conditions should be eligible to vote by absentee ballot without being under a physician-instituted quarantine. We are still looking at the disenfranchisement of people with felonies that are related to certain crimes. Within that 1890 constitution, there was the creation of a group of felonies that they referred to as black crimes. The people convicted of these crimes would automatically lose their right to vote. So, we’ve been working to get that changed as well.