House Judiciary B Chair Nick Bain, R-Corinth, questions the logic of why at least some of the people convicted of felonies permanently lose their voting rights unless they are restored by a two-thirds vote of both chambers of the Mississippi Legislature.
“People convicted for bad checks – why do they have to jump through hoops to get their rights back?” Bain asked.
Bain hopes to explore that question and others during hearings of his Judiciary B Committee before the Legislature convenes in January for the 2022 session.
Bain said he is not sure how he feels about the provision in the state constitution that permanently disenfranchises people convicted of some felonies, but not those convicted of some other crimes. But he said people convicted of at least some of the lesser crimes should not face lifetime disenfranchisement.
Rep. Tommy Reynolds, D-Water Valley, agrees.
“A person can lose his voting rights at 18 for stealing a lawnmower and not have that right back at 81 unless it is approved by a two-thirds vote of both houses of the Legislature,” said Reynolds, who nearly every year files legislation to end the lifetime disfranchisement for many convicted of felonies.
While that 18-year-old would lose his voting-rights forever, under the Mississippi Constitution people convicted of some other crimes, such as being a major drug dealer, could continue to vote even while incarcerated.
Bain said he hopes to have hearings to explore various issues related to the felony voting rights provision of the Mississippi Constitution. One question that most likely will be explored is whether the Legislature could change the process by passing a bill instead of going through the more arduous process of amending the constitution.
Reynolds said he believes changes could be made without having to amend the constitution, which would require putting the issue on the ballot.
By the same token, Reynolds said, “I believe the people would vote to restore the voting rights of nonviolent offenders. I think it would pass.”
But Reynolds also pointed out that former Gov. William Winter, while serving in the Mississippi Legislature in the 1940s, authored a bill that became law to restore voting rights to military veterans at the time who had been convicted of felonies.
Reynolds has filed similar legislation to restore the rights of veterans who are alive now. The legislation has not been successful.
“I think in a matter of time, it might be 20 years or it might happen quickly, this is going to be thrown out for either an equal protection or due process argument to the U.S. Constitution,” Reynolds said. “A person can be convicted of murder under federal law and not lose his rights, but be convicted of felony shoplifting in state court and lose his rights.”
Reynolds surmised the framers of the state’s 1890s state constitution did not include federal crimes as disenfranchising because that could have impacted veterans who fought for the Confederacy in the Civil War.
“This is a relic of the past whose time has come,” said Reynolds, age 66. “It will be repealed one day. It might not be in my lifetime, but it will happen.”
Mississippi is in the minority of states – less than 10 – where voting rights are not automatically restored for people convicted of felonies either after they complete their sentence or at some point after completing parole or probation.
The state now denies a higher percentage of its residents the right to vote because of felony convictions than any other, according to a recent study. In Mississippi, 235,150 people – or 10.6 percent of the state’s voting age population – have lost their right to vote, according to a recent study by The Sentencing Project, a national nonprofit that advocates for voting and criminal justice issues. Since 2016, Mississippi has moved from second to first highest percentage in the nation.
The prohibition on voting is part of the 1890 Mississippi Constitution – added as one of several attempts to prevent Black Mississippians from voting. A 2018 analysis by Mississippi Today found that 61 percent of the Mississippians who have lost their rights to vote are African American, despite the fact that African Americans represent 36 percent of the state’s total voting-age population.
Disenfranchising crimes consist of: arson, armed robbery, bigamy, bribery, embezzlement, extortion, felony bad check, felony shoplifting, forgery, larceny, murder, obtaining money or goods under false pretense, perjury, rape, receiving stolen property, robbery, theft, timber larceny, unlawful taking of a motor vehicle, statutory rape, carjacking and larceny under lease or rental agreement.