State electoral reform

Despite the criticism of the Electoral College that arises every time there is a close presidential election, it has a legitimate purpose: to keep huge population centers from dictating who holds the White House.

Mississippi’s two-pronged system for electing governors and other statewide officials, though, has no similarly defensible rationale.

Unlike the Electoral College, which gives voters in small states a little more say in electing a president than they would otherwise have in a purely popular vote contest, Mississippi’s system has nothing to do with empowering voters.

Since it has rarely come into play, most voters in this state don’t even realize that a candidate for governor must win not only the majority of the votes statewide but also the majority of the votes in a majority of House districts. That second requirement, unlike the federal Electoral College, does not balance the clout between urban areas and rural ones, since all state House districts have roughly the same population.

So what is its purpose?

Most likely twofold: to make the executive branch weaker than the legislative branch and to make it harder for minority candidates to win a statewide office.

Both of those motivations were driving forces in the writing of the state’s 1890 Constitution, in which this double electoral test was enshrined into law. It would be reasonable to conclude they were also at play in the adoption of this particular provision.

Mississippi’s electoral system, the only one like it in the country, is being challenged in federal court by a group led by former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder. Even if you don’t agree with Holder that the system is racially discriminatory, it’s hard to refute that it’s discriminatory to the party that’s not in power.

Republicans currently enjoy a supermajority in the state House. If this year’s governor’s race is so close that it has to be decided by that chamber, the Democratic candidate might lose, even with a razor-thin advantage in the popular vote.

The party in power has demonstrated before that it will put partisanship ahead of fair play in legislative electoral contests. It should not have this option when it comes to deciding statewide elections.

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