Stripping Away The Power of a Vote In Mississippi

A bright red outline of Mississippi is juxtaposed with a dark blue background and blue-hued voters standing in line. In the foreground, blue ballots are fluttering out of a red ballot box.

Increasingly, organizers, politicians and political parties are recognizing that the South isn’t inherently or irrevocably Republican — more aptly, the South’s voters are suppressed. Earlier this month, Election Day in Mississippi gave credence to the argument. 

On Nov. 7, incumbent Gov. Tate Reeves (R) won reelection with 50.9% of the vote. In Mississippi’s closest governor’s race since 1999, with 47.7% of the vote share, his Democratic challenger Brandon Presley was nearly close enough to force a run-off election. Reeves’ slim margin of victory, which was considerably smaller than his initial election in 2019, has proven to Democrats that investment in deeply red states can pay off. 

With a low turnout of 41%, Reeves won by only 26,619 votes. In the state’s capital and Democratic stronghold of Jackson, an Election Day administrative meltdown that had voters waiting in line for hours and some leaving before voting is likely to have impacted that slim margin.  

Mississippi’s low voter turnout is a manufactured result of its many restrictions on the ballot box. 

Instead of facilitating access to the democratic process, Mississippi has a series of highly limiting election policies that prevent those eligible from voting easily. 

Mississippi has an egregious voting rights record and boasts the highest level of felony disenfranchisement in the country. A Jim Crow-era constitutional provision, known as Section 241, enables Mississippi to disenfranchise more than 10% of its total voting-age population and its disenfranchisement of Black voters exceeds 15%. 

In August of this year, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the disenfranchisement provision, holding that it violates the 8th Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. The massive win for voters in the state, however, lasted just over a month before the 5th Circuit agreed to rehear the case and allowed Section 241 to remain in place, locking tens of thousands of Mississippians with prior felony convictions out of the democratic process.

For those in the state who aren’t disenfranchised, Mississippi has a laundry list of administrative hurdles standing in the way of the right to vote. 

Mississippi is one of three states that does not offer early voting opportunities for the vast majority of its registered voters. Instead, there are an incredibly narrow set of qualifications for those seeking to vote absentee and those who do qualify are almost all required to vote in-person before Election Day at the county circuit clerk’s office. Voters who are “entitled” to vote by mail include those with physical disabilities and anyone over the age of 65. 

Prior to 2020, election officials would reject an otherwise valid ballot with a signature matching issue without notifying the voter, a common practice known as curing that allows voters to fix minor mistakes on their ballot certification envelopes. However, litigation led to the end of the state’s ban on ballot curing absentee ballots at risk of rejection. Now, the limited number of mail-in voters have the opportunity to prove their identity and save their ballot. 

In addition to the lack of early voting, Mississippi does not offer same-day registration opportunities. An eligible person interested in voting must register 30 days prior to the election. In contrast, 22 states and Washington, D.C. allow qualified residents to register to vote and cast a ballot during the early voting period, streamlining the process. 

When voting in-person on Election Day, voters are also required to provide photo ID — a requirement that disproportionately harms minority voters. 

All of this means that the vast majority of ballots are cast on Election Day. 

In Hinds County, home to the state’s capital, Jackson, Election Day was a study on the ramifications of Mississippi’s election policies.

In Hinds County, multiple polling locations ran out of ballots multiple times throughout the day, resulting in voters waiting in lines for hours at a time. In response, the Mississippi Democratic Party and the voting rights organization Mississippi Votes, requested poll hour extensions at the affected locations. 

The fight to extend polling hours became a jumble of legal filings and contradicting orders all as voters waited in line — or left the line entirely due to the lack of ballots. 

Arekia Bennett-Scott, executive director of Mississippi Votes, contextualized the impact of the debacle in a statement: “These issues deter eligible voters from participating in the democratic process and undermine the integrity of the election itself.”

Mississippi Votes initially appealed an Election Day circuit court order that “granted in part and denied in part” the request to keep the polls open past 7 p.m. in an effort to gain clarity for future elections. However, the voting rights organization voluntarily dismissed their appeal to the Mississippi Supreme Court a week later. 

Ultimately, with the restrictive requirements and long lines on Election Day, Hinds County’s turnout dropped by over 4,000 votes in 2023 as compared to 2019. 

Along with the Election Day meltdown, the voters and communities in Jackson, which is over 80% Black, have faced targeted power grabs by lawmakers this year. 

In February of this year, Mississippi Republicans passed a bill that created a court that is unaccountable to Black voters. The legislation focuses on the Capitol Complex Improvement District (CCID), a special district in Jackson centered around the state capitol building with its own police force. 

House Bill 1020 created a new court system with an unelected judge within the CCID and also expanded the CCID to cover the entire city of Jackson rather than just a handful of government buildings. Concurrently, another law, Senate Bill 2343, put Jackson’s predominantly Black population under the control of the state-run Capitol Police by expanding the CCID’s boundaries in order to give the Capitol Police jurisdiction over the entirety of Jackson.

Prior to the passage of S.B. 2343, the Capitol Police only held policing power over certain state properties in the CCID, whereas under S.B. 2343’s extended jurisdiction, the Capitol Police cover all of Jackson, including residential neighborhoods miles away from the Capitol Complex.

In September, the Mississippi Supreme Court struck down a court-packing provision of H.B. 1020 that would have allowed the white, conservative chief justice to appoint four unelected “temporary” judges to the existing Hinds County Circuit Court, which oversees Jackson. 

However, at the same time, the state Supreme Court also upheld the separate provision that creates the new CCID court system with an unelected judge. 

Although litigation over the legislation is now resolved in state court, a separate lawsuit in federal court challenging multiple aspects of H.B. 1020 — including the new court within Jackson — and S.B. 2343 is ongoing.  

Across the country, Republicans are struggling to maintain power at the local level any way they can, from creating new court systems in Mississippi to slashing Nashville’s Metro Council in Tennessee. 

Not only is the conservative Mississippi lawmakers’ attempt to create an unaccountable court system an egregious power grab, but their efforts are also a part of a larger trend nationwide.  

This year in Tennessee, Republicans enacted a law that cut Nashville’s Metro Council in half after the council refused to host the 2024 Republican National Convention. In North Carolina, Republican legislators introduced a bill that would have amended the state constitution to end the principle of one person, one vote in the state Senate and in Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) has recently suspended two duly elected local prosecutors. 

One of the prosecutors, Democrat Monique Worrell, who was the only Black woman serving as a local prosecutor in Florida, railed against DeSantis and warned that the country should “be afraid of an individual who removes duly elected officials because they are not politically aligned with him.”

But just as we should not stand for the erosion of our democracy, it’s important to remember that the eroded margins, like the one in Mississippi this month, are small and winnable.