Few options remain for Mississippians convicted of certain felonies to regain voting rights

Mississippians convicted of certain felonies have few options to regain their voting rights — a standard practice in most other states — after the U.S. Supreme Court refused to take up a case attempting to end the lifetime ban on voting.

The nation’s highest court, by a 7-2 vote in late June, refused to hear a Mississippi lawsuit arguing that the state’s lifetime ban on voting for people convicted of certain felonies was unconstitutional. Racist white lawmakers in 1890 who wrote the provision into the current Mississippi Constitution said plainly that they adopted it to keep African Americans from voting.

READ MORE: Attorney General Lynn Fitch argues in federal court that Jim Crow-era voting ban should be upheld

Now that the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear the Mississippi case, the state remains in the minority as one of fewer than 10 to impose a lifetime ban on voting for people convicted of felonies.

It also appears efforts to remove the ban through the courts have been exhausted. Legal advocates who have long been fighting the Jim Crow provision are now turning their focus to the only viable solution left: the legislative process.

“At a time when most states have repealed their disfranchisement laws, we need to remove from Mississippi’s Constitution this backward provision that was enacted for racist reasons,” said Vangela M. Wade, the president and CEO of the Mississippi Center for Justice, which helped craft the lawsuit that was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court. “Here in the 21st Century, just and reasonable minded people must not allow this outdated relic of the 19th Century to stand or define a new Mississippi. The Legislature now has the duty to begin the repeal process.”

The most obvious way to repeal the lifetime ban is to amend the Mississippi Constitution. There is currently one way to amend the Mississippi Constitution: the Legislature, by a two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate, must pass a resolution proposing a change. Then, voters on a statewide ballot must approve that change.

Florida voters recently approved a repeal of that state’s lifetime ban on people convicted of felonies being able to vote. But in Florida, the proposal to repeal the lifetime ban was done through a voter ballot initiative instead of through the Legislature.

Mississippi, though, no longer has an initiative process, which allows voters to gather enough signatures to bypass the Legislature and place an issue directly on the ballot. Mississippi’s voter initiative was struck down by the state Supreme Court in 2021, and the Legislature, despite repeated promises from its leaders, has refused to pass a resolution to restore the process.

There is a way for disenfranchised voters to have their voting rights restored under the current Mississippi Constitution. But that process is rarely used and incredibly cumbersome. The Legislature, by a two-thirds vote, can restore voting rights. Historically, the Legislature has restored the rights one person at a time by passing individual resolutions. But there appears to be a consensus that legislators could pass one bill enacting rights for a large group of people. In the 1940s, for example, legislators passed a bill restoring voting rights for people convicted of felonies who served in World War II.

Additionally, the governor can restore voting rights. But both current Gov. Tate Reeves and his predecessor, Phil Bryant, have refused to grant any pardons.

In other states, governors have restored voting rights to large groups of people in a single order. It is not clear whether a Mississippi governor could do the same, and such a gubernatorial effort might face a court challenge.

All said, there is no indication that the current Republican leadership is interested in restoring voting rights on a large basis to people convicted of felonies. Since they took control of both chambers of the Legislature and the Governor’s Mansion in 2012, Republicans have been reluctant to restore voting rights.

Lawmakers did not restore anyone’s voting rights during the 2023 legislative session.

READ MORE: Key GOP lawmaker says ‘it’s past time’ to address Mississippi’s lifetime felony voting ban

In 2022, the Legislature did pass a bill to clarify that people who had certain primarily non-violent convictions expunged would regain the right to vote. But Reeves vetoed the bill, and legislators made no effort to override the veto.

Years ago, efforts were made to reach a compromise. Under the current legal system, people convicted of certain serious crimes, such as selling drugs or sexual assault of minors, do not lose the right to vote and can even continue to vote while incarcerated. On the other hand, people convicted of what many would consider lesser crimes, such as writing a bad check, lose their right to vote forever.

To address that disparity, some lawmakers over the years proposed banning all people from voting while they were in state custody, but allow them to vote once they finished their sentences. None of those bills, however, have been adopted.

U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson wrote a blistering dissent arguing the Supreme Court should take up the case challenging the constitutionality of the Mississippi provision.

In response, Hinds County District Attorney Jody Owens said he would take steps when possible to ensure people did not lose their voting rights.

“My office will seek to protect the accused’s voting rights, where possible, when making charging decisions,” Owens said in a news release. “If a person is accused of a disenfranchising crime, and a parallel charge is available that does not affect his or her voting rights, my office will proceed on the parallel charge. I challenge other district attorneys across the state to join me in taking up Justice Jackson’s charge and adopt similar policies to protect our citizens from discriminatory disenfranchisement.”

Those crimes placed in the constitution where conviction costs a person the right to vote are bribery, theft, arson, obtaining money or goods under false pretense, perjury, forgery, embezzlement, bigamy and burglary. The framers of the constitution did not include murder and rape as disenfranchising crimes, though they were added years later. More recently, the list has been expanded through opinions of the state Attorney General to include modern day crimes that matched those included in the 1890 Constitution.

The framers of the Mississippi Constitution said plainly in 1890 that they included those crimes because they believed African Americans were more likely to commit them. The framers also included other racist provisions to keep Black Mississippians from voting, such as poll taxes and so-called literacy tests.

Those provisions, unlike felony suffrage, were all struck down by the federal courts — not by state legislative action.

READ MORE: Gov. Tate Reeves vetoes bill easing Jim Crow-era voting restrictions

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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