Jails plan for inmates locked up but not locked out of voting

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Even Mississippi inmates get a voice in this year’s Election Day.

State law-enforcement officials aren’t sure how many people detained on criminal charges in jails and prisons are eligible to vote Nov. 8. But more than a few of them can cast a ballot if they just ask.

In Mississippi, most citizens age 18 and older are eligible to register and then vote in local, state and federal elections. However, persons convicted of any of 22 specified crimes automatically lose their vote, or suffrage.

Those disenfranchising crimes are: arson, armed robbery, bigamy, bribery, carjacking, embezzlement, extortion, felony bad check, felony shoplifting, forgery, larceny, murder, obtaining money or goods under false pretense, perjury, rape, receiving stolen property, robbery, statutory rape, theft, timber larceny, unlawful taking of motor vehicles and larceny under lease or rental agreement.

In legal terms, that means that anyone who hasn’t been convicted of the aforementioned offenses and is registered is eligible to cast a vote even behind bars.

A random survey of county sheriffs for around the state shows most have processes in place to respond when vote-eligible detainees ask for a ballot. However, several corrections officials queried by Mississippi Today offered mixed responses about it.

Harrison County Sheriff Troy Peterson

Harrison County Sheriff's Department Facebook

Harrison County Sheriff Troy Peterson

In Harrison County, new Sheriff Troy Peterson says the eligible voters in his jail “don’t care anything about voting – they’re thinking about getting out.”

But for those who want to vote, he said absentee ballots are made available by local election commissioners, and that process has worked well across the 23 years he’s worked for the department.

When asked how he conducts in-jail voting, Hinds County Sheriff Victor Mason, who was elected in 2015, offered: “We don’t have that here.”

Sheriffs prep jails for Election Day

Unlike other voting blocs, it doesn’t appear that prisoners have anyone who has taken up their cause. The Secretary of State’s office told Mississippi Today they were unaware of any recent complaints from prisoner-rights advocates.

Sheriff K.C. Hamp of Tunica County, president of the Mississippi Sheriffs Association, said he’s making plans to allow voting at the Tunica County Jail by persons convicted of crimes not specified in the state Constitution or who just are being detained on charges but not yet convicted.

Hamp said his staff will work with the circuit clerk’s office to ensure the voting is conducted properly.

“They may be in jail, but they still have the right to vote,” Hamp said.

In Forrest County, Sheriff Billy Magee said individual candidates ask to campaign at the jail, and if prisoners ask for a ballot, he’ll bring in a notary to witness the absentee voting.

KC Hamp, Tunica County sheriff and president of the Mississippi Sheriffs' Association

KC Hamp, Tunica County sheriff and president of the Mississippi Sheriffs’ Association

Under state law, a voter must request an absentee ballot from the local circuit clerk, who then mails it to the voter – the ballots cannot be brought blank in bulk to a location for voters to fill out.

Deputy Alex Coker said DeSoto County goes the extra mile and transports eligible detainees to their local voting sites on election day, then returns them to jail.

Carroll County Sheriff Clint Walker posts instructions in various jail pods on how prisoners may write or notify the circuit clerk for an absentee ballot. He provides paper, envelopes and stamps to make it convenient.

“Any eligible prisoner can formally request an absentee ballot,” said Lee County Sheriff Jim Johnson, whose office also provides a notary and writing supplies.

The same goes for Alcorn County, said Sheriff Ben Caldwell. Numerous other sheriffs were contacted but did not immediately respond to Mississippi Today.

Roger Graves, the longtime Pike County circuit clerk, said his office assists eligible prisoners whom the sheriff’s office brings to the courthouse to vote by absentee ballot.

The idea of taking away a criminal’s right to vote has been around since ancient Greece and Rome. It was called “civil death” and involved the forfeiture of property, loss of right to appear in court, prohibition on entering into contracts, as well as the loss of voting rights.

Civil death came to America with English colonists, but most aspects of it eventually were abolished.

As for state prisoners in state facilities, Mississippi Department of Corrections spokesperson Grace S. Fisher says those eligible inmates also vote by absentee ballot.

“They can work with their case managers to get the ballots,” she noted.

Regaining the franchise

Once the voting right is lost, Mississippians can follow legal procedures to get it back.

To regain the ability to vote, an individual must complete his or her sentence, go to his/her state representative or senator and convince them to personally author a bill restoring that person’s right to vote. Both houses of the Legislature must pass the bill by a two-thirds vote. Re-enfranchisement also may be granted directly by the governor.

Gov. Phil Bryant’s office did not respond to repeated inquiries by Mississippi Today about whether he has reinstated anyone’s right to vote since taking office in 2012.

During the 2016 Mississippi legislative session, at least three bills were introduced aimed at restoring the vote to certain disqualified felons – two for named individuals and a third to establish a system to automatically restore the vote to felons who complete their sentences, probation and/or paid restitution, with the exception of anyone convicted of murder, rape and statutory rape. All three bills failed.

In 38 states and the District of Columbia, most ex-felons automatically regain the right to vote upon completion of their sentence, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Eleven states permanently prohibit some or all felons from voting, barring a pardon or other government action.

The Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based criminal-justice research and advocacy organization, reports that nearly 6 million people across the U.S. with felony convictions will not be able to vote in November.

Some states have faced legal action over their prisoner voting laws. Earlier this week, the state of Alabama was sued in federal court to overturn a state law stripping the vote from any person “convicted of a felony involving moral turpitude” – a law that has left more than 250,000 adults there ineligible to vote. Plaintiffs insist the term “moral turpitude” is legally undefined and the law is racially discriminatory, indefensibly vague and unconstitutional.

While Mississippi’s disenfranchisement law is different, the Southern Poverty Law Center continues to consider its impact, said Jody Owens II, this state’s managing attorney.

Back in Mississippi, Alcorn County’s Sheriff Ben Caldwell, who was elected in 2015, said he’s working with his staff and local circuit clerk to set up a good process for his detainees who are eligible to vote Nov. 8 and beyond.

“We will help them in any way we can,” he noted.