Nick Corasaniti, New York Times, October 17, 2023
Just three years ago, Mississippi had an election law on its books from an 1890 constitutional convention that was designed to uphold “white supremacy” in the state. The law created a system for electing statewide officials that was similar to the Electoral College — and that drastically reduced the political power of Black voters.
Voters overturned the Jim Crow-era law in 2020. This summer, a federal court threw out another law, also from 1890, that had permanently stripped voting rights from people convicted of a range of felonies. (The case is currently tied up on appeal, with no future date set by a federal court, leaving the ultimate status of former felons’ voting rights uncertain.)
Now Mississippi is holding its first election for governor since those developments, the contest is improbably competitive in this deep-red state, and Black voters are poised to play a critical role.
Black leaders and civil rights groups in Mississippi see the Nov. 7 election as a chance for a more level playing field and an opportunity for Black voters to exercise their sway: Roughly 40 percent of voters are Black, a greater share than in any other state.
“This election is going to be one that is historical,” said Charles V. Taylor Jr., the executive director of the Mississippi state conference of the N.A.A.C.P. “It’d be the first time we don’t have to deal with this Jim Crow-era Electoral College when it comes to the gubernatorial race. And also, we’re at a point in our state where people are fed up and frustrated with what’s currently happening.”
Democrats are trying to harness that energy behind Brandon Presley, the party’s nominee for governor. Mr. Presley, who is white, is seeking to ride his brand of moderate politics and his pledges to expand Medicaid to an underdog victory over Gov. Tate Reeves, an unpopular Republican incumbent who has been trailed by a welfare scandal.
Black Mississippians lean heavily Democratic: Ninety-four percent voted for Joseph R. Biden Jr. in 2020, according to exit polls. Any path to victory for a Democrat relies on increasing Black turnout and winning over some crossover white voters.
Mr. Presley, a member of the Mississippi Public Service Commission and a second cousin of Elvis Presley, has made outreach to Black voters central to his campaign, seeking to win them over on Medicaid expansion, addressing a rural hospital shortage and providing funding for historically Black colleges.
Many of the state’s rural areas, however, are heavily white, and any Democrat seeking statewide office must cut into Republican margins there. Mr. Presley routinely notes in his stump speech that he is “building a coalition of Democrats, Republicans, independents, folks who might not ever agree on politics.”
The race’s limited polling shows Mr. Presley within striking distance but running consistently behind Mr. Reeves. Mr. Presley outpaced the governor in the most recent fund-raising period by $7.9 million to $5.1 million, but Mr. Reeves enters the final stretch with $2.4 million more in cash on hand.
As Mr. Presley tries to bridge Mississippi’s stark racial gap, he has not shied away from that history.
“Black Mississippi and white Mississippi have been purposely, strategically and with intent, divided over racial lines,” Mr. Presley told a lunchtime crowd at a soul-food joint in Jackson. “Intentionally divided. For two things: money and power, money and power, money and power.”
Mr. Taylor and the local N.A.A.C.P. have begun a new program to reach out to Black voters.
Every day, canvassers fan out across a predominantly Black neighborhood of low-propensity voters, seeking to have extended conversations about the issues that are important to them and what would make them more likely to vote.
Yet the canvassers’ resulting study found that Black voters “did not identify voting as a mechanism to solve those issues.”
Under the old election law, candidates for statewide office had to win both the popular vote and a majority of State House districts, with maps that were often drawn to pack Black voters together and limit their voting power.
The state’s law barring those convicted of certain felonies from voting has also disproportionately affected Black voters, disenfranchising one in every six Black adults, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
The status of the law remains in limbo: The state quickly appealed the decision to overturn it, the ruling was vacated, and a subsequent appeal is pending before a federal court. Most voting rights groups in Mississippi are advising former felons who would benefit from the original decision that they should not try to register to vote while the appeal is pending.