JACKSON – For the second consecutive year, Mississippi House members have voted unanimously to create a commission to study the issue of restoring voting rights for felons.
The legislation, authored by House Apportionment and Elections Chairman Bill Denny, R-Jackson, is pending in the Senate Elections Committee. The bill was killed in 2017 in the Senate Elections Committee.
“The whole idea about restoring suffrage is to make sure people have a fair shot of getting back on their feet,” said Rep. Cheikh Taylor, D-Starkville, a co-author of the legislation. Taylor said restoring voting rights would help felons who had served their time become responsible citizens.
Efforts have been made in the past to try to change the state Constitution’s antiquated and convoluted rules regarding when felons lose their right to vote. But those efforts always have been thwarted at some point in the process.
Based on studies, Mississippi has one of the highest percentage of disenfranchised felons.
In addition to the legislation that would at least study the issue, there also is a federal lawsuit filed last September by the Mississippi Center for Justice claiming the lifetime ban on felons voting is unconstitutional.
Mississippi is in the minority of states – 12, according to the Sentencing Project – where voting rights are not automatically restored for felons either after they complete their sentence or at some point after completing their parole or probation. In two states, Maine and Vermont, the felons never lose their voting rights.
Mississippi is unique in that people convicted of some felonies never lose their suffrage and are eligible to vote even while incarcerated and other people lose their voting rights unless restored either through legislation or by unilateral action by the governor.
In recent years, the number of felons having their voting rights restored through the legislative process has been small. In the 2017 session, six felons had their suffrage restored.
Before last year, only eight felons since 2012 had their voting rights restored, according to research done by Brian Perry, a political columnist and Republican political consultant based in the Jackson area.
It used not to be so difficult to get a bill through the Mississippi Legislature to restore felon voting rights. In the 2004 Mississippi legislative session, for instance, 35 felons had their voting rights restored. The Sentencing Project, a national nonprofit organization that works on criminal justice issues, estimates that between 2000 and 2015, 335 felons in Mississippi had their voting rights restored.
Based on a 2016 study by the Sentencing Project, Mississippi has an estimated 218,000 convicted felons ineligible to vote.
Only Florida, with 1.7 million felons or 10.4 percent of its voter-age population ineligible to vote, had a higher percentage than Mississippi, where 9.6 percent of the adult population was ineligible to vote, according to the 2016 study.
The original list of crimes cited in the 1890s Constitution as being disenfranchising has been updated by official opinions from the Attorney General’s office through the years to coincide with modern criminal law.
The crimes on the list via the AG opinion are 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.
Historical records, according to numerous sources, indicate the felony voting disenfranchisement was included in the 1890s Constitution by white Mississippians who believed it would prevent from voting some African-Americans whom they believed were more prone to commit some crimes.