Mississippi lawmakers move toward restoring voting rights to 32 felons as broader suffrage bill dies

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi legislators advanced bills Monday to give voting rights back to 32 people convicted of felonies, weeks after a Senate leader killed a broader bill that would have restored suffrage to many more people with criminal records.

The move is necessary due to Mississippi's piecemeal approach to restoring voting rights to people convicted of felony offenses who have paid their debts to society. It also reflects the legacy of the state’s original list of disenfranchising crimes, which springs from the Jim Crow era. The 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.

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.

“I certainly don’t think this is the best way to do it,” said Republican Rep. Kevin Horan of Grenada, who chairs the House Judiciary B Committee. “There comes at a point in time where individuals who have paid their debt to society, they’re paying taxes, they’re doing the things they need to do, there’s no reason those individuals shouldn’t have the right to vote.”

Despite lawmakers' dismay with the current process, some are trying to restore suffrage for select individuals. On Monday, lawmakers on House and Senate Judiciary committees passed a combined 32 bills. The bills were introduced after a House hearing on Wednesday highlighted the difficulties some former felons face in regaining the right to vote.

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

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.

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 passed 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.” But the bill died after Senate Constitution Committee Chairwoman Angela Hill, a Republican from Picayune, refused to bring it up.

Horan said the Republican House majority would only bring up individual suffrage bills for those who committed nonviolent offenses and had been discharged from custody for at least five years. Democratic Rep. Zakiya Summers of Jackson said she appreciated the House and Senate committees for passing the individual bills, but decried the the death of the larger House bill.

“That failed action plus the testimony we received during last week's hearing are proof the system is broken,” Summers said. “We should right this historic, oppressive wrong by passing legislation that fully restores all who have been disenfranchised despite the conviction.”

___

Associated Press reporter Emily Wagster Pettus contributed to this report. Michael Goldberg is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues. Follow him at @mikergoldberg.

Michael Goldberg, The Associated Press