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Mississippi legislators won't smooth the path this year to restore voting rights after some felonies

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LA Post: Mississippi legislators won't smooth the path this year to restore voting rights after some felonies
April 17, 2024
EMILY WAGSTER PETTUS - AP

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Kenneth Almons says he began a 23-year sentence in a Mississippi prison just two weeks after graduating from high school, and one of his felony convictions — for armed robbery — stripped away voting rights that he still has not regained decades later.

Now 51, Almons told lawmakers Wednesday that he has worked hard and remained law-abiding since his release, and he wants to be able to vote.

“It would mean I am no longer considered a nobody,” Almons said. “Because when you don't have a voice, you're nobody.”

Mississippi is among the 26 states that remove voting rights from people for criminal convictions, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.

Mississippi's original list of disenfranchising crimes springs from the Jim Crow era, and attorneys who have sued to challenge the list say authors of the state constitution removed voting rights for crimes they thought Black people were more likely to commit.

Under the Mississippi Constitution, people lose the right to vote for 10 felonies, including bribery, theft and arson. The state’s previous attorney general, a Democrat, issued a ruling in 2009 that expanded the list to 22 crimes, including timber larceny and carjacking.

In 1950, Mississippi dropped burglary from the list of disenfranchising crimes. Murder and rape were added in 1968. Attorneys representing the state in one lawsuit argued that those changes “cured any discriminatory taint,” and the conservative 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals court agreed in 2022.

To have voting rights restored, people convicted of any of the crimes must get a pardon from the governor or persuade lawmakers to pass individual bills just for them, with two-thirds approval of the House and Senate. Lawmakers in recent years have passed few of those bills, and they passed none in 2023.

Two lawsuits in recent years have challenged Mississippi's felony disenfranchisement. The U.S. Supreme Court said in June that it would not reconsider the 2022 5th Circuit decision.

The same appeals court heard arguments on the other case in January and has not issued a ruling.

In March, the Republican-controlled Mississippi House voted 99-9 to pass a bill that would have allowed automatic restoration of voting rights for anyone convicted of theft, obtaining money or goods under false pretense, forgery, bigamy or “any crime interpreted as disenfranchising in later Attorney General opinions.” The restoration would occur five years after conviction or after release from prison, whichever is later.

Senate Constitution Committee Chairwoman Angela Hill, a Republican from Picayune, killed the bill when she didn't bring it up for consideration before a March 21 deadline. In response to questions Wednesday, Hill told The Associated Press she blocked it because “we already have some processes in place” to restore voting rights person by person.

Rep. Kabir Karriem, a Democrat from Columbus, led a House hearing Wednesday and said restoring voting rights “is a fundamental human rights issue.”

“Let us remember that the fight for voting rights is a fight for justice, equality and democracy itself," Karriem said.

Rep. Zakiya Summers, a Democrat from Jackson, served as an election commissioner before winning a House seat in 2019. She said a constituent called her upset one year because he went to his longtime precinct and his name had been removed from the list of registered voters. Summers found out the man had been convicted of a disenfranchising felony.

Democratic Sen. Hillman Frazier of Jackson filed a bill to restore the man's voting rights, and the Legislature passed it. But Summers said some 55,000 Mississippians with felony convictions remain disenfranchised.

“It shouldn’t matter if you have a relationship with your legislator that you can get your voting rights restored,” Summers said.

More than 50 bills have been filed this year to restore voting rights for specific people. Legislators could consider those until the end of the four-month session, which is set for early May.

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