Editorial Roundup: Mississippi

The Greenwood Commonwealth. April 24, 2024.

Editorial: Unconstitutional Bill Earns Veto

The Mississippi Legislature got it half-right when it passed legislation earlier this year to insulate county election commissioners from partisan politics.

For the public to have full faith in election results, it needs to feel that those who are counting the ballots are impartial.

If an election commissioner personally identifies with any political party, it creates a perception that the election commissioner may lean toward helping candidates from the same party get elected.

House Bill 922 would try to lessen that perception by mandating that candidates for election commissioner run under no party label.

The legislation, however, went too far by also trying to restrict who could back an election commissioner, forbidding a political party or committee from endorsing or making contributions to a candidate for the office.

Such restrictions would be clearly unconstitutional. Mississippi lawmakers should know this, as the state has gone unsuccessfully down this road before. In the mid-1990s, it passed the Nonpartisan Judicial Election Act, which did the same thing with judicial races that the legislation this year was attempting with election commissioners.

A federal court judge, applying a Supreme Court decision from 1989, said Mississippi could dictate that judges run without party labels, but it could not bar political organizations from backing judicial candidates. That would be a violation of the free speech rights of those organizations and the members they represent.

Had Gov. Tate Reeves not vetoed House Bill 922, it almost certainly would have resulted in a lawsuit that the state would most likely lose. Reeves has spared the state that unnecessary expense while also recognizing that political speech is protected by the Constitution as is the freedom to associate.

One might argue that there is a difference between endorsing and giving campaign contributions, and that Mississippi should try to bar the latter. But there, too, the Supreme Court has previously ruled that while reasonable limits can be imposed on contribution amounts, they can’t be banned outright from domestic, legal organizations.

The author of House Bill 922, state Rep. Noah Sanford, told the Magnolia Tribune website that he understood the reasons behind the governor’s veto and would work to address the constitutional concerns, although it might be the 2025 legislative session before that happens.

That’s soon enough. It is irresponsible to pass laws, even well-intended ones, that are not going to stand up to a court challenge. Better to get the language right than to get it quickly.