By Tamikia Carr Vasquez
Mississippi, historically a hotbed of racial hostility between whites and blacks, is once again on the cusp of change. In June, the Mississippi legislature voted to remove the Confederate battle emblem from the state’s flag. In November, voters will have the opportunity to vote on removing the “Mississippi Plan” from the state constitution. This 1890 Jim Crow era provision states that 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 on 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, about the background of the current electoral process, the prospects of the success of the referendum, and other election law issues facing Mississippi. This is part 1 of a two-part interview.
TCV: Can you please tell me a little bit about your background and the work of the Mississippi Center for Justice?
VMW: I became President and CEO in mid-January 2020. I am an attorney who has practiced for over 23 years. I am a former prosecutor and have worked in labor and employment law – mostly on the management side – diversity issues, cross-cultural competency consulting, and family law.
MCJ focuses on dismantling systemic injustices across this state as they may relate to race, economics, and social justice. We focus on a number of areas that include consumer protection, education, health and public benefits, immigration, and disaster recovery, which began with Hurricane Katrina and then the BP oil spill. Now in the midst of COVID, we are extending that disaster recovery experience across our campaigns to address many issues that people are grappling with due to the pandemic. Finally, our primary method of fighting systemic racism and injustice across the state is through our George Riley Impact Litigation Initiative, which is how we address Issues in the courts that deal with reproductive rights, voting and election rights, criminal justice reform, and discrimination.
TCV: Can you give me a little bit of background on the Mississippi Plan?
VMW: During the Civil War and Reconstruction, many Southern states began placing so-called “black codes” in local ordinances. Jim Crow is what it became to be known as, and that includes the Mississippi Plan. The Mississippi Plan set precedent on how white politicians could circumvent the newly created laws to protect the rights of African Americans. They figured out how to circumvent those laws while at the same time prevent the federal government from from taking any action. Southern states appeared to be complying with the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the US Constitution but really were creating this parallel world – that is the gist of the Mississippi Plan.
7 African Americans held statewide office in Mississippi – ranging from lieutenant governor to secretary of education – before Mississippi’s 1890 constitution went into place. At that time, the majority population of Mississippi was African American. If you were trying to protect white political power and the white political base, and you’ve got a voting population where formerly enslaved people are the majority and the whites are the minority, the writing is on the wall. At the 1890 constitutional convention, lawmakers made sure that African Americans would not have a majority vote in Mississippi – at least to the extent that African Americans would be able to elect a black man to statewide office based on one man, one vote. If you go back to the speeches that were given during that 1890 constitutional convention, they explicitly say that this is what they were setting out to do by creating a two-tiered system where holders of statewide office had to win both the popular vote and a majority vote in the House of Representatives. People ask, why are you still talking about 1890? Because that’s when the plan was laid – the gerrymandered creation of Mississippi’s House of Representative districts that allow the the two-tier plan to work in favor white political power. Those plans were laid out then and still impact us today.
Article 5, sections 140, 141, 142, and 143 set up a two-tier election system for statewide offices. If you’re running for governor or any statewide office, you have to win the popular vote by more than a majority – that’s the first tier – and then even if you win the popular vote you also have to win a majority of the House of Representative districts – the second tier. Those districts are designed to be majority white. The likelihood of an African American winning the majority of majority white districts is zero. Even if an African American wins the first popular vote, the election goes to the House to actually cast the vote that matters – and House representatives don’t have to vote according to how their districts voted! Therein lies the quagmire. It’s not one man one vote in Mississippi when it comes to state elections. Most Mississippians get to cast one vote; House Representatives get an extra vote, and it’s the one that counts.
TCV: So this brings me to my next question: I’m in an election law class this semester and we’ve been talking about Barker 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 VRA. With all of that precedent, how is it that in 2020 this has been able to still be constitutional?
In Part 2 of the interview, Ms. Wade answers that question, discusses the outcome of the referendum, and other election-related topics in Mississippi.