Mississippians are Organizing to Get Government Accountability

Written By: Nick Licata

Not all deep red southern states are alike.

    Virginia over the past several years has become more purple while Mississippi has remained deep red. Democrats won more legislative and congressional seats in Virginia. As I pointed out in my last piece, that trend was kicked off by a successful constitutional based lawsuit against the racially based gerrymandering that the Virginia legislature had created. Court cases are one of the three primary tools available to make government’s more accountable.
Unlike Virginia, there is no court ruling pending nor cases filed challenging Mississippi’s gerrymandered state or federal district boundaries. A seasoned research and legal staff are required to file effective lawsuits against a state legislature’s gerrymandering. In Virginia’s case the fair redistricting advocacy groupThe Princeton Gerrymandering Project provided relevant data analysis, which specializes election and political law, and Kevin Hamilton, a litigator from the law firm Perkins Coie, brought the case representing the interests of African-American voters.
They are not involved with Mississippi’s situation. And the other the most likely institution in Mississippi to have available legal staff would be the ACLU. However, Mississippi’s ACLU has focused on directly stopping excessive force abuses against the black community; they filed a federal class-action lawsuit against county deputies who used unconstitutional tactics to target black people. As a result, the courts are not currently looking at any cases that would overturn Mississippi’s racially biased gerrymandered districts.
Mississippi allows citizen-initiated constitutional amendments, but none is currently being planned around redistricting or expanding voter access. Past progressive initiative efforts have failed at the polls. In 2001, a vote to change the state flag by eliminating the Confederate emblem was rejected by nearly two-thirds of voters. Reflecting that same conservative culture, another amendment in 2011 requiring a strict Voter ID law passed. However, that year an amendment supporting an extreme anti-abortion failed. And although the last citizen-initiated promoting greater government accountability, in this case by increasing funding for public education, failed in 2015, it almost passed.
A recent survey indicates that these last two election results reflect a growing dissatisfaction by Mississippi’s citizens with their state legislature’s extreme conservative policies. In January of this year, a survey conducted by the Institute for Civic and Professional Engagement at Millsaps College and Chism Strategies found that the disapproval rating for the Mississippi Legislature’s work was nearly twice as high as its approval rating (46% to 24%). The public’s attitude appears to be swinging toward a rejection of a rigid ideology, as U.S. Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith, who ran as a strong Trump supporter against the moderate Democrat Mike Espy, had a 50% disapproval rate of her work in the Senate but only 38% in support of it.
That survey also showed strong support for funding public services that the Republican-controlled state legislature has opposed. It reported that “A majority of Mississippi voters (65%) say that funding for the state’s public schools is too low, cutting across lines of party, race, gender, educational attainment, and age. Likewise, over 75% support providing for a 3% pay raise for Mississippi public school teachers.”
Brad Chism, the president of Chism Strategies released a statement saying, “This information is not filtered through special interests—it comes straight from a representative sample of voters across the state.” Unlike a number of other surveys that appear to have a particular political bent, this survey’s results, analysis, and crosstabs were publicly released.
The road to achieving greater government accountability now is dependent upon electing officials who recognize the need for better public services. Still, just presenting good candidates is not enough. This past November Mississippi saw two strong and articulate democratic candidates running for the U.S. Senate defeated.
Democratic U.S. Senate Candidate Mike Espy came within 8 points of beating Republican Cindy Hyde-Smith for an open seat, which was the closest U.S. Senate election in Mississippi in the last 30 years. Espy ran as a moderate and Hyde-Smith as a strong Trump supporter. Meanwhile, the Democratic leader in Mississippi’s statehouse, David Baria, lost to the incumbent Republican Sen. Roger Wicker by 20 points.
Baria’s race is typical of how well Democrats do against Republicans in Mississippi, which has been described by analysists as one of the least elastic states in the country, largely because of its demographics. Although at 37%, Mississippi has the highest percentage of black residents of any state and 75% are Democrats or lean that way, the white voters are almost as strongly Republican at 65%, but they make up 61% of the population, leaving relatively few swing voters.
Overall Mississippi is mostly Christian, largely rural and is among the least-educated states. President Trump does well with voters who fall into these categories, but he only got 1% higher of the white voter turn out than McCann did in 2016. Meanwhile, Obama got a 10% greater black turnout than Hillary Clinton did in 2016. So, Espy, a black liberal candidate, turned out more of the Democratic base and didn’t generate any measurable increase in conservative white voters. If a Democrat can keep his or her base while also appealing to independents and those that lean Republican, that person could win.
Baria, who is white, supporting gun control and reproductive rights, was more progressive than Espy. Baria’s Republican opponent Wicker was slightly more moderate than Espy’s opponent Hyde-Smith. The total turnout of Baria’s race was 17% lower than Espy’s, with Baria receiving 66,000 fewer votes than Espy. Nevertheless, Espy’s vote tally was short by that number of votes to win his election. The results would indicate that a moderate Democrat could come closer to beating a Trump Republican by appealing to more cross over voters, but that candidate still needs to get out more voters who support progressive positions if they expect to win. It is a delicate and difficult balance to achieve.
Democratic Rep. Jay Hughes, running for lieutenant governor, is walking that tight-rope. He announced his campaign as a “people-powered, grassroots campaign about inclusion, not exclusion.” His opponent is Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, who enjoys a net approval rating of +30%, attracting both Democrats and black voters. His current popularity is higher than any other candidate running for one of Mississippi’s 7 executive offices. Hughes needs to hold onto his base and still attract Hosemann’s support. Hughes has done so by attracting many conservative white working-class families from smaller towns and rural areas as he emphasizes the need for funding for better education and roads, that surveys reveal voters want better funded.
The problem that Hughes faces, and one that other Democrats in Mississippi and other deeply red states confront, is how to keep the support of progressives who could sit out a race if a candidate does not support a woman’s right to have an abortion for instance. As a current state legislator, Hughes recently voted for an anti-abortion measure similar to the one that was defeated at the polls. He understandably explained his vote as one that was necessary to retain his seat and make him a competitive candidate for lieutenant governor, but it could also result in a lower turnout from his voter base.
Another strong democratic candidate, Jennifer Riley-Collins, is running for the vacant Attorney General position. As a retired decorated army colonel with 20 years of military service and an active in the religious community, she can also attract traditional republican leaning voters. However, she is the current Executive Director of Mississippi’s ACLU and has represented it in opposing state laws that violated an individual’s civil rights. As Attorney General, she would now have to defend those laws. She says that if elected she is committed to “represent the legal interest of the State of Mississippi.” And she strongly states, “My commitment to serve and protect all Mississippians fully qualifies me for the position.”  She has several popular Republican opponents and any of them are expected to outspend her in the general election.
The best chance that the Democrats have for capturing a state-wide office is with the current Attorney General Jim Hood, who is running for the vacant Governor’s seat. He has been the only statewide elected Democrat in Mississippi for some time. Like, Rep. Jay Hughes, he has support among white working-class families, particularly from rural areas, which is critical since Mississippi’s only urban center is the Greater Jackson area, and has a population of less than 600,000 in a state with a total population just shy of 3 million.
Hood’s opponent is Republican Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves, who has big financial backers but polls only 47 percent with those leaning Republican while Hood scores an approval of 46 percent, and with independent voters Hood leads Reeves by 13 points. But like all of the other Democrat candidates, campaigning on some liberal social policies are constrained by the need to retain the support of those culturally conservative families.
Even with viable democratic candidates, the road to victory depends on getting out more voters and providing them good information on the issues. Espy’s campaign did that according to Beth Orlansky, the Advocacy Director for the Mississippi Center for Justice, saying “There was a groundswell of excitement to get registered and vote, Espy’s campaign energized people that hadn’t voted before. There still is an appetite for change.”
Mississippi Votes has a proven track record of turning out new voters, Izzy Bronstein, the Grassroots Organizer for Common Cause, said: “Mississippi Votes is one great organization getting out new voters.” Arekia Bennett, the Executive Director of Mississippi Votes, explains their strategy for particularly reaching young new voters: “Mississippi Votes is Millennial led and youth-centered — in an effort to stay true to that founding principle, we have campus ambassadors on 9 of the 17 colleges and universities throughout the state of Mississippi. It is our goal, by August, to have that same youth civic engagement programming in 5 high schools across the state.” Focusing on youth makes sense given the economic difficulty they are having. A recent study by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis found Millennials born in the ’80s have a net worth 34% below what was expected.
But just getting them to vote would not be enough. Bennett explains that “Mississippi Votes does political education, voter registration, and conducts research that informs our organizing strategies in and with communities that have historically been disenfranchised and/or have a below average voter turnout rate during non-presidential elections.”
While Mississippi Votes has supported online voter registration, which appeals to youth, Mississippi still does not have Election Day registration, automatic voter registration, mail ballot delivery or campus vote centers. Adopting any of these measures would greatly contribute to increasing voter turnout for all residents. Mississippi residents are strongly behind making voting easier for them. The January Millsaps / Chism survey found 71% of Mississippians favored allowing for early voting in their Circuit Clerk’s offices 14 days before an election, something that is allowed in 38 other states. However, these measures will only be adopted when the Republican supermajority in each chamber can be reduced to at least a simple majority and the Governor is a Democrat so that a Democratic Governor’s veto of restrictive voting measures could not be overridden.
It will be a challenge to reduce the number of Republicans to the level that drops their seats below 60% in either chamber. The Democrats would have to win either 10 seats in the House or 5 seats in the Senate for that to happen. Without redistricting, the current gerrymandered state districts will be used, but that does not eliminate the possibility of flipping the necessary number of seats to deny the Republicans a supermajority in either chamber. It was done in Virginia under the same conditions, it can happen in Mississippi.

Electoral wins take grassroots organizing and good candidates. If Mississippi Votes can turn out the youth voters and others who have not registered to vote but want more government accountability, those wins are very possible. As the Millsaps / Chism state-wide survey showed, the populace wants to change. They need to believe that there is a chance for that happening. Local organizations like Mississippi Votes, One Voice, People’s Advocacy Institute and Fair Vote, need assistance from national groups like the NAACP, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee (NDRC) and Common Cause. These groups must provide assistance if Mississippi’s state government is to have a bi-partisan distribution of power and finally provide greater accountability to its residents.
John Chappell, a young student volunteer in Mississippi Votes, bluntly summarized Mississippi’s challenge, “Our institutions aren’t going to save themselves. We need to deliberately push for more inclusive, more democratic governance. Our institutions rely on citizen participation, which means that everyone has to do their part.”