State symbols don’t have to go on the ballot

Published 11:03 am Monday, August 21, 2017

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Defenders of the Confederate battle emblem on the Mississippi flag have a ready-made argument that was handed to them nearly a generation ago by lawmakers who didn’t want to deal with the politically volatile issue of redesigning the banner.

It goes like this: The people of Mississippi voted to keep the flag in a statewide election in 2001, and politicians should not undo the will of the people. Supporters say if the state flag is going to be debated, the only legitimate way to do it is with another statewide election.

The argument about legitimacy ignores the fundamentals of how government works.

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People elect public officials to set public policy. Subject to approval or veto by the governor, legislators decide how state dollars are spent and write a wide variety of laws, including those that set the symbols of the state.

Elected officials changed one Mississippi symbol in 2014 when legislators passed and Republican Gov. Phil Bryant signed a bill that added “In God We Trust” to the state seal.

The seal appears on some government paperwork and in a few locations like podiums the governor or other state elected officials use at some news conferences.

The flag has a wider reach as a state symbol, both inside and outside of Mississippi. It is part of the image that the state presents to the world.

Mississippi has used the same flag since 1894, and it is the last state with a flag that still incorporates the Confederate emblem that critics see as racist.

Georgia had a large Confederate battle emblem on its flag from 1956 to 2001. A flag used from 2001 to 2003 still had a small version of the emblem, and a new flag adopted in 2003 eliminated the emblem altogether. Legislators in Georgia made the decisions to change the flag.

The Mississippi flag became a topic of public debate in 2000 when the state Supreme Court found that sections of law dealing with the flag had expired during an update of the state code in 1906. That meant the design with the Confederate emblem had been used by tradition but not by law. A commission held public hearings around the state in 2000, and some of those degenerated into shouting matches between supporters and opponents of the Confederate emblem.

Legislators could have set a flag design but chose to put the question to a statewide vote in April 2001. The ballot had two options: The 1894 flag or one that would have replaced the Confederate battle emblem with a solid blue square topped with circles of stars to represent Mississippi as the 20th state. By a 2-to-1 margin, people voting that day chose to keep the old design.

The Mississippi flag and the public display of other Confederate symbols came under scrutiny after the 2015 mass killing of black worshippers in Charleston, South Carolina. White nationalists carried the rebel flag this month at a gathering in Charlottesville, Virginia.

Bryant and Lt. Gov. Tate Reeves are using the same argument that flag supporters use: If the question is to be reconsidered, it should go to another statewide election.

When legislators put the flag on the ballot more than 16 years ago, they removed themselves from a divisive vote guaranteed to anger some portion of the population.

With current legislators out of session until January, questions remain: Will they debate the flag themselves? Will they put it to another statewide election? Or will they do as they’ve done the past several years — ignore the volatile question in the interest of their own political self-preservation?