Executive authority in the state rests with the governor of Mississippi, currently held by Phil Bryant. The Lieutenant Governor of Mississippi, currently held by Tate Reeves (R), is elected on a separate ballot. Both the governor and lieutenant governor are elected to four-year terms of office. Unlike the federal government, but like many other U.S. States, most of the heads of major executive departments are elected by the citizens of Mississippi rather than appointed by the governor.
Mississippi is one of only five states that elects its state officials in odd numbered years (others being Kentucky, Louisiana, New Jersey, and Virginia). Mississippi holds elections for these offices every four years in the years preceding Presidential election years. Thus, the last year when Mississippi elected a Governor was 2015, and the next gubernatorial election will occur in 2019.
Legislative authority resides in the Mississippi Legislature, which is the state legislature. The Legislature is bicameral, consisting of the Senate and House of Representatives. The lieutenant governor presides over the Senate, while the House of Representatives selects their own Speaker. The state constitution permits the legislature to establish by law the number of senators and representatives, up to a maximum of 52 senators and 122 representatives. Current state law sets the number of senators at 52 and representatives at 122. The term of office for senators and representatives is four years, with no term limits.
Supreme judicial authority rests with the state Supreme Court, which has statewide authority. In addition, there is a statewide Court of Appeals, as well as Circuit Courts, Chancery Courts and Justice Courts, which have more limited geographical jurisdiction. The nine judges of the Supreme Court are elected from three districts (three judges per district) by the state's citizens in non-partisan elections to eight-year staggered terms. The ten judges of the Court of Appeals are elected from five districts (two judges per district) for eight-year staggered terms. Judges for the smaller courts are elected to four-year terms by the state's citizens who live within that court's jurisdiction.
Mississippi has two U.S. Senate seats. One is currently held by Thad Cochran (Republican) and the other is held by Roger Wicker (Republican) who was appointed on December 31, 2007 by Mississippi governor Haley Barbour due to Trent Lott resigning on December 18, 2007 and who was elected to finish Lott's term on November 4, 2008 (see United States Senate special election in Mississippi, 2008).
As of the 2001 apportionment, the state has four congressmen in the U.S. House of Representatives, currently Gregg Harper (Republican), Bennie Thompson (Democrat), Steven Palazzo (Republican), and Trent Kelly (Republican).
(See: List of United States Senators from Mississippi; List of United States Representatives from Mississippi; Congressional districts map)
During the Reconstruction era, freedmen gained freedom, citizenship and the franchise. African Americans could vote in the state for the first time. They elected numerous representatives to local and state offices, despite being subject to intimidation and violence at the polls, increasingly so during the 1870s, when the Red Shirts, paramilitary groups representing conservative white Democrats, tried to suppress the black vote.
After a biracial Populist-Republican coalition gained power in the late 1880s, the Democrats returned in force to the state government. To prevent such a coalition and to reduce the violence around elections, they decided to expel African Americans from state politics. In 1890 Mississippi passed a new constitution with provisions to disenfranchise most blacks and many poor whites through use of the poll tax and literacy tests for voter registration, with the latter administered by white registrars. The number of black voters fell drastically, as they were prevented from registering. This was the reason the Democratic Party dominated state and federal elections in Mississippi into the 1960s.
For 116 years (from 1876 to 1992), Mississippi was essentially a one-party state, electing Democratic governors, federal representatives and most state officials. When Mississippi's constitution passed a Supreme Court challenge in Williams v. Mississippi (1898), other Southern states quickly included such provisions in their own new constitutions, drafting new works through 1908. By 1900, these measures effectively disfranchised nearly all black voters in Mississippi. When the grandfather clause was struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in Guinn v. United States (1915), Mississippi and other states which had used it quickly passed other statutes to find other ways to restrict black registration and voting. Disfranchisement of blacks and poor whites continued for more than six decades.
Mississippi white residents, as in the rest of the South, long supported the Democratic Party. The policies of Reconstruction, which included federally appointed Republican governors, led to white Southern resentment toward the Republican Party. Following the Compromise of 1877, federal troops enforcing the provisions of Reconstruction were pulled out of the South. The Democratic Party regained political control of the state in the 1870s, partly by using violence and fraud to suppress black voter turnout and turn elections in their favor. Blacks had favored Republican candidates and the party of Lincoln.
In the 20th century, after years of indirectly supporting the disfranchisement of blacks in the South, northern Democrats began increasingly to support labor unions and civil rights for blacks. Many conservative white Democrats began to get restless. The first sign of this discontent was in the 1948 presidential election, when the Dixiecrat slate of Strom Thurmond and Mississippi Governor Fielding Wright won a majority of the state's popular vote, largely by virtue of Dixiecrat supporters taking over the state Democratic machinery.
In 1960, a slate of unpledged Democratic electors won a plurality of the state's vote. It was the first time the official Democratic candidate had not carried the state since the Reconstruction era. These eight electors cast their electoral votes for conservative Democratic Senator Harry F. Byrd.
In 1964, the white voters in the state swung over dramatically to support Barry Goldwater, who took an unheard-of 87 percent of the state's white popular vote (this was while most African Americans were still disfranchised and effectively could not vote) in the midst of Lyndon Johnson's 44-state national landslide. Goldwater carried several counties with well over 90 percent of the vote, and his five best counties in the nation were all in Mississippi. Again, he was supported by white voters.
Since then, there has been a major realignment, with white conservative voters supporting Republicans for the state's federal positions, even though Democrats nominally continued to have a majority of registered voters. Since 1964, Mississippi has supported a Democrat for president only once, in 1976, when Jimmy Carter, a son of the South ran. That year, he narrowly carried the state by two percentage points (15,000 votes).
During the fall of 1963, civil rights activists registered 80,000 black voters in Mississippi for the straw Freedom Vote, to demonstrate the people's ambition and eagerness to vote. In 1964, the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) was formed, creating a list of candidates to challenge the official, all-white slate of the state's Democratic Party. The MFDP also mounted protests at the national Democratic convention, seeking to be seated as official delegates.
Not until the late 1960s, following passage of the Federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 under President Lyndon Johnson, would most African-American men and women have the chance to register and vote again in Mississippi and other Southern states. In 1967 the first twelve black men ran for office for the first time since Reconstruction in Holmes County; two gained local office and one, teacher Robert G. Clark, was elected to the state house. He continued to be re-elected from Holmes County and in the late 20th century, was elected three times as speaker of the House.
On September 26, 2008, presidential candidates Barack Obama and John McCain debated at the University of Mississippi in the first presidential debate ever hosted in Mississippi. It was also the first official debate for the election. The debate focused on foreign policy and national security issues.
(See: List of counties in Mississippi)
During disfranchisement and majority-white dominance of the Democratic party and state politics, nearly all races were effectively decided in the Democratic primary, from which blacks were excluded by the "white primary" and other voter registration tricks. Although civil rights groups mounted legal challenges, Mississippi's constitution was upheld for some time. From 1877 to 1959, the Republicans fielded a gubernatorial candidate only twice. It was not until after passage of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 that federal enforcement led to African Americans' being able to register and vote in numbers related to their population in the state. In the first half of the 20th century, many left the oppressive conditions here in the Great Migration to the North and Midwest.
In 1991, Kirk Fordice became the first Republican to win the governorship since the end of Reconstruction. In 1995, Fordice became the first governor to be reelected to a second term since the adoption of the 1890 constitution. Democrat Ronnie Musgrove won a close election over U.S. Congressman Mike Parker to become governor in 1999. Musgrove's term was marked by increased concerns over the state budget and a failed referendum on redesigning the state flag which Musgrove had supported. In 2003, Republican Haley Barbour defeated Musgrove in his bid for reelection. Barbour's governorship was dominated by recovery efforts for Hurricane Katrina and the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the state's largest disasters since the 1927 Mississippi River floods.
In 2011, Hattiesburg mayor Johnny DuPree became the first African-American to be nominated as a Democrat for governor. Republican lieutenant governor Phil Bryant went on to defeat DuPree in the general election with 61% of the vote. In doing so, Bryant became the first Republican to succeed an outgoing Republican governor. Bryant was reelected with 67% of the vote in 2015, the highest percentage ever received by a Republican candidate for governor in Mississippi.
Since the beginning of the 21st century, Republicans have done similarly well in other statewide offices. Eddie Briggs became the first Republican lieutenant governor when he was elected alongside Kirk Fordice in 1991. This led to the awkward arrangement where Briggs was able to appoint Republican chairmen to committees in the State Senate despite Democrats holding the majority. He lost reelection in 1995. Republicans won a majority of statewide offices for the first time in 2007. Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood of Houston is currently the only Democrat in statewide office, having won all of his elections by significant margins. Mississippi has not elected a Republican attorney general since Reconstruction. In 2015, the Democrats captured a majority on the Mississippi Public Service Commission. As of 2016, Mississippi and Louisiana are the only states in the Deep South to have Democratic statewide elected officials.
Despite increasing Republican successes in statewide races beginning in the 1980s, Democrats continued to maintain large advantages in the state legislature into the 21st Century. Democrats held supermajorities in both the State House and State Senate following the 1999 elections. Republicans narrowly captured the State Senate in 2007, and gained a majority in the State House in 2011. Following the 2015 elections, Republicans captured a supermajority in the State House thanks to party switches but actually lost seats in the State Senate. Since 2011, the Democratic caucuses in the state legislature have become majority African-American. Despite this, the Democratic party leaders, State Representative David Baria and State Senator Hob Bryan are White.
Liquor laws in Mississippi are particularly strict, with some variation among jurisdictions. Statewide prohibition of alcohol did not end until 1966, making Mississippi the last state with such a ban in force. Liquor stores may only be opened from 10:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m., and are disallowed from operating on New Year's Day, Good Friday, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas Day. Currently, state law disallows the operation of liquor stores on Sundays. Many local jurisdictions similarly prevent the Sunday sale of beer for off-site consumption or restrict the Sunday sale of alcohol in bars and restaurants. Many cities and counties allow no alcohol sales at all ("dry counties"), while some employ different standards for different types of alcohol (e.g., no liquor sales, but beer sales permitted, or vice versa). In some cities, the sale of refrigerated beer for off-site consumption is prohibited, with such ordinances being notably enforced in the state's largest college towns of Oxford and Starkville. Despite some of the strictest liquor laws in the country, Mississippi is the only state in the country without a statewide open container law but several cities and counties enforce local ordinances against the consumption of alcohol while operating a vehicle.
Mississippi has one of the least progressive records on LGBT rights of any state. Consenual same sex relations were illegal in Mississippi until Lawrence v. Texas struck down all state anti-sodomy laws in 2003. Same-sex marriage had been banned in Mississippi by executive order in 1996, and state statute since 1997. In 2004, Mississippi voters approved an amendment to the state constitution defining marriage as a union between one man and one woman with 86% of the vote. Mississippi's ban on same-sex marriage was ruled unconstitutional by district judge Carlton W. Reeves in 2014, but enforcement of his decision was stayed pending appeal by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. In June 2015, Mississippi's same-sex marriage ban was struck down by the Obergefell v. Hodges decision. Unlike other Southern states, enforcement of the Obergefell decision happened almost immediately and without major incident, with county clerks in several counties beginning to offer same-sex marriage licenses the same day the decision was handed down. Same-sex couples were not allowed to jointly adopt children until March 2016, but Mississippi has always permitted adoption by an umarried adult without regard to sexual orientation. Governor Phil Bryant signed a controversial "religious freedom" law in April 2016. The law was struck down, once again by judge Carlton Reeves, in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution in July 2016. Attorney General Jim Hood issued a statement indicating he would not pursue to appeal the decision.
At the same time, Mississippi has been one of the more innovative states in the country, having been the first state to implement a sales tax, and in 1882 the first state to pass a Married Women's Property Act.
Also, between the Reconstruction era, when blacks constituted a majority and elected many representatives to local and state office, and since the 1960s, Mississippi has elected more African-American officials (including local offices) than any other state in the United States. Mississippi is one of a growing number of states, 17 as of February 2016, as well as the District of Columbia to have decriminalized the possession of marijuana, so that possession of 30 grams or less of marijuana is punishable only by a fine of $100 – $250 for the first offense with no jail time.
Mississippi has 82 counties and present the closest face of government to citizens. Members of the county Boards of Supervisors are elected from single-member districts, and several other county officials, such as sheriff, are elected at-large. At a time when the state was predominately rural, counties were divided into "beats," with each supervisor responsible for road and bridge maintenance in his beat. This arrangement was useful when areas were lightly settled and communication was difficult, but it persisted in most of the state until 1988. The counties serve both legislative and executive functions; the decentralization into beats with few controls on individual supervisors led to problems with wasteful purchasing, inefficient government and, in some cases, corruption. Unitary and centralized county government is considered more efficient for conducting county business.
During the 1980s, some 57 of Mississippi's 410 county supervisors, from 26 of the state's 82 counties, were charged by the federal government with corruption. The FBI had carried out a lengthy investigation to gain evidence in these cases. Reform led to an overhaul of the counties' purchasing systems.