While most of the attention to last Tuesday’s election results was rightly on the close race between President Trump and Joe Biden, by far the most fascinating and surprising result in Mississippi was the overwhelming support in favor of a new state flag.
By Wednesday afternoon, with all the state’s precincts reporting except 26 in Pearl River County and one in Hinds County, 769,944 people voted in favor of the magnolia flag, while only 305,272 opposed it.
The flag got approved by 72% of Tuesday’s 1,075,000 voters. This is a result that few would have predicted, given that in 2001, 65% of voters supported the prior flag, which included the Confederate battle insignia in one corner.
In recent years, advocates of changing the flag ran into steady resistance from Republicans in state government. They said that because the people had spoken overwhelmingly in favor of the existing flag 19 years ago, the decision on changing it should be left up to them.
Voters on Tuesday, however, redefined “overwhelming.” A comparison between the two votes is imperfect because the first flag referendum was the only thing on the ballot in April 2001. This week’s referendum tagged along with a presidential election that set turnout records across the country.
Nevertheless, the difference is clear. In 2001, 488,000 voters supported keeping the state flag, while 267,000 voted for a new one.
To compare those results with the latest one, roughly 281,000 more voters last week supported the magnolia flag, while there were only 35,000 more votes against it.
White voters are the only possible explanation for this gigantic shift in opinion. A closer look at the results shows that the new flag won approval in 79 of the 81 counties that had reported results by Wednesday. The margins were often 2-to-1 and sometimes 3-to-1 or larger.
Such a result may not have occurred before this year, when racial justice protests over the high-profile deaths of Black people at the hands of police officers forced a reassessment of many symbols around the country.
The Mississippi flag was an obvious target, given that it remained the only state flag in the country that paid tribute to the Confederacy. The Legislature surprisingly retired the old flag near the end of this year’s session, and Gov. Tate Reeves changed his mind and got on board.
The state set up a special commission with only two guidelines: a new flag could not include any Confederate symbols, and it had to include the phrase “In God We Trust.”
Members of that commission must be among the most gratified people in the state today. They had to be concerned that Mississippi’s long-displayed resistance to change would surface once again in last Tuesday’s vote. Thankfully, a large majority agreed it was time to move on.
If there was a loser on Tuesday, it was legislative Republicans. They whiffed on both the flag and the Initiative 65 medical marijuana referendum that also won approval by a large margin.
The Legislature had to be cajoled by business and religious groups into taking action on the flag. As for marijuana, it chose not to address a difficult topic that has been gaining momentum around the country. That allowed a rebellious Republican lawmaker, Rep. Joel Bomgar, to seize control of the issue.
With out-of-state guidance, Bomgar got a deeply flawed Initiative 65 onto the ballot. Lawmakers ultimately responded with an alternative of their own, but it was too late, and now medical marijuana is enshrined in the state Constitution. It will take another voter-approved constitutional amendment to fix it.
Lawmakers may have bet that the public would never support medical marijuana. It was another misread of changing times.