Felony voting action unlikely in Mississippi

Published 12:00 pm Monday, May 2, 2016

By Sid Salter

Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe signed an executive order last week that in one stroke of the pen restored the suffrage of 206,000 convicted felons in a state that’s expected to be a key swing state in the 2016 presidential election. The measure applies to felons who have completed their prison sentences.

McAuliffe, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and the former chairman of Secretary Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, denied Republican allegations that the executive order came in an effort to bolster Clinton’s 2016 presidential bid.

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McAuliffe’s order empowers every Virginia felon to vote, run for public office, serve on a jury and become a notary public so long as their prison sentence has been completed and they finished any supervised release, parole or probation requirements as of the date of the order.

Virginia was one of only four states in the nation to disenfranchise all individuals with felony convictions for life. McAuliffe’s order has caused a political furor in his home state and a renewal of debate of the issue nationwide.

But McAuliffe is far from the first prominent Democrat to champion the issue of felony disenfranchisement. As part of his final months in office, former U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder beat the political drums for restoration of voting rights to felons in states like Mississippi that made it difficult, if not impossible, for convicted felons to vote.

Holder said in a 2014 speech at the Georgetown University Law Center: “It is time to fundamentally reconsider laws that permanently disenfranchise people who are no longer under federal or state supervision.”

Holder’s moral justification for his position was his belief that felony disenfranchisement laws trace to Reconstruction as an orchestrated effort to restrict black from voting. He cited statistics that show that of the approximately 5.8 million U.S. citizens whose voting rights are restricted by felony convictions, 38 percent are black.

Estimates of Mississippi’s disenfranchised felons are as high as 182,000 and it is believed that 60 percent of that total is comprised of African-Americans.

Currently, Mississippi is one of 11 states (Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Nebraska, Nevada, Tennessee and Wyoming) that most pervasively restrict the voting rights of convicted felons even after prison, parole, probation and post-sentence obligations have been satisfied. There have been scattered efforts over the last 20 years seeking to change Mississippi’s felony disenfranchisement laws, but such efforts have failed.

In Mississippi, individuals convicted of a felony are barred from voting only if they have been convicted of crimes including “murder, rape, bribery, theft, arson, obtaining money or goods under false pretense, perjury, forgery, embezzlement, bigamy, armed robbery, extortion, felony bad check, felony shoplifting, larceny, receiving stolen property, robbery, timber larceny, unlawful taking of a motor vehicle, statutory rape, carjacking, or larceny under lease or rental agreement.”

In order for a disenfranchised individual to regain the vote, the felon must serve his or her time and then prevail on his or her state representative to introduce a bill to restore his or her rights. The bill must pass both houses of the Mississippi Legislature. State law also empowers to governor to grant restoration of the franchise to an individual. Mississippi felons remains eligible to vote in U.S. presidential elections.

The likelihood of Mississippi’s laws changing on this issue anytime soon would best be characterized as slim and none. Estimates of Mississippi’s disenfranchised felons are as high as 182,000 and it is believed that 60 percent of that total is black residents.

But past efforts, including ACLU lawsuits and other challenges, have done little to change public attitudes about voting rights for felons. The majority of Mississippians aren’t bothered by the Reconstruction-era laws and believe that they still represent “part of the punishment” for crime. Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, a former lawman, won’t initiate such an order.

Mississippi’s Republican-dominated Legislature has exhibited zero sentiment for wading off in that political minefield. Voting rights for ex-convicts is a non-starter in Mississippi and will likely remain so for some time to come.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at sidsalter@sidsalter.com.