BOBBY HARRISON: Mississippi operates with circuitous election laws

BOBBY HARRISON

BOBBY HARRISON

If Tuesday’s election was the November general election and Chris McDaniel was running on the Tea Party ticket and not as a Republican supported by Tea Partiers, he would be the new U.S. Senator-elect for the state of Mississippi.

McDaniel, a state senator from Ellisville, came close Tuesday to doing the unthinkable by defeating political icon and six-term U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran.

As it stands, though, neither candidate garnered a majority vote because of a third candidate in the field, forcing a June 24 runoff election.

But if that same election were the general election, instead of a primary, a majority vote would not have been needed. In 1978, when then-4th District U.S. Rep. Cochran was elected to the open U.S. Senate seat, he did so by winning a plurality of the vote (45 percent) against Democrat Maurice Dantin and independent Charles Evers, brother of slain civil rights leader Medgar Evers.

In fairness to Cochran, he has since won re-election five times where he received at least 60 percent of the vote. And truth be known, he has not faced a serious challenge since 1984 when he garnered that 60 percent against former Democratic Gov. William Winter.

It is a bit perplexing how Mississippi law reads as it relates to whether a candidate must or must not win a majority vote to capture a political office.

As already pointed out, a candidate for federal office (Senate or House) must capture a majority to win the party nomination and advance to the general election. But that same candidate does not have to win a majority in the general election – just a plurality.

On the other hand, if no candidate running for governor or for the other seven statewide offices receives a majority vote in the general election and receives the most votes in a majority of the 122 state House districts, then the Constitution calls for the state House to pick a winner from the top two vote-getters.

The last time that happened was in 1999 when Democrat Ronnie Musgrove, who received the most votes but not a majority against Republican Mike Parker, was selected by the House.

Before then, in 1995, Musgrove’s election to lieutenant governor also was thrown into the House – not because he did not garner a majority of the popular votes, but because he did not capture the most votes in a majority of the House districts. Incumbent Republican Lt. Gov. Eddie Briggs, who was convincingly defeated by Musgrove in terms of popular votes, opted not to pursue the issue in the House.

Candidates for the Mississippi Legislature and local officials – like the federal officials – have to win a majority vote to capture their party’s nomination, but not to win the general election and to actually capture the office.

Granted, it is a bit confusing to have different rules for different elections.

It could be argued that it makes sense to require a majority vote to select a party nominee. The party wants to be able to reach consensus on the best candidate for the general election.

Of course, Mississippi is in a distinct minority in requiring its candidates to win more than 50 percent of the votes to capture the office of governor and various other statewide offices. When the issue came up with the Musgrove election in 1999, Vermont was the only other state to have such a requirement.

And no other state has the unusual provision of requiring a candidate to capture the most votes in a majority of the House districts, which are redrawn every 10 years to adhere to population shifts and to meet the political needs of the group in power at the time.

Despite the antiquated provisions to Mississippi elections, the Legislature has refused to take steps to make changes.

But then again, change has traditionally come slow in Mississippi.

And in the meantime, there will be a runoff later this month because no candidate got a majority earlier this week in the Republican primary.

Bobby Harrison is the Daily Journal’s Capitol Bureau Chief. Contact him at bobby.harrison@journalinc.com or call (601) 946-9931.