Felon voting ban draws another federal lawsuit

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R.L. Nave, Mississippi Today

The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit in federal court over the state’s voter disenfrachisement laws. From left: Attorneys Jonathan Youngwood and Jody Owens with plaintiffs Dennis Hopkins, Walter Kuhn and Byron Coleman in Jackson.

For the second time in less than six months, the state of Mississippi is being sued in federal court for the way that it takes away and restores voting rights to people convicted of certain felonies.

Five men are challenging the constitutionality of Mississippi’s disenfranchisement laws, which govern how people can regain their voting rights after being convicted of disqualifying crimes.

The Mississippi Constitution outlines several crimes for which a conviction would disqualify a person from voting, including bribery, theft, arson, obtaining money or goods under false pretenses, perjury, forgery and embezzlement. Murder and rape were added in 1968 while many other felonies, including drug crimes, are not disqualifying.

Only a gubernatorial pardon or act of the Legislature can restore the voting rights of a person convicted of a disqualifying crime. Attorneys for the Mississippi Southern Poverty Law Center and New York City-based firm Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP say Mississippi essentially imposes a lifetime voting ban, which violates several provisions of the U.S. Constitution.  

“Our clients are citizens who made a mistake, paid their debt to society long ago, and now live and work alongside us, pay taxes, worship with us, fight in our wars, send their children to school with ours, and are equal members of our society in every way, save one — they have no say in our representation in Mississippi and in Washington,” said Jody Owens, the managing attorney for the Mississippi SPLC, at a news conference.

Delbert Hosemann

Delbert Hosemann, the Mississippi Secretary of State, whose agency oversees elections, is the named defendant in the suit. His office, citing the pending litigation, declined to comment. 

The lawsuit was announced outside a Secretary of State office building named for Heber Ladner, Mississippi’s longest serving elections chief who was frequently named as a defendant in voting rights lawsuits of the 1960s. Ladner later administered the oath of office to Rep. Robert G. Clark, the first African American elected to the Legislature after Reconstruction.

The legal action Tuesday follows a similar federal challenge filed in September 2017, which argues that Mississippi’s voter disenfranchisement law was designed to ensnare African Americans, whom the framers of the state constitution believed were more prone to committing certain kinds of crimes.

A recent Mississippi Today analysis — looking at conviction records from the Administrative Office of Courts that span from 1994 until last November — shows that 56,255 Mississippians have lost the right to vote in that time due to felony charges. Of that total, 61 percent are African-American, who represent just 36 percent of the state’s total voting-age population.

Mississippi Today’s data analysis also shows that the top disqualifying crimes for disenfranchisement are property crimes, not violent offenses. Murder and rape together account for only 6 percent of all disqualifying crimes.

Racial disparity conspicuous among Mississippians banned from voting

The lawsuit filed Tuesday also claims that disenfranchisement is tantamount to a violation of First Amendment protections of political speech.

Jon O’Neal, one of the plaintiffs, said he was very involved in conservative politics in Jones County before his conviction for second-degree arson of a non-dwelling in 2015.

“Politics was a big part of my life and now it’s just gone. I was very political and now I’m nothing,” O’Neal, 37, stated in the complaint.

Dennis Hopkins, who was convicted of grand larceny in 1998 but since has become involved in his community, including teaching youth sports, said that if he is expected to pay taxes in his life after prison, he should likewise be given back his right to vote.

“You just go to the side, pay your money and you keep your mouth closed and (the state says), ‘We spend it how we want to.’ It’s called being bullied and being bullied is a serious thing nowadays,” Hopkins said at a news conference.

“We are tired of getting put to the side. We are tired of standing alone and we’re ready to get up and fight for it because we have that right. Mississippi is a great state and I love Mississippi. I love my country. I want to be able to vote. I want to be able to say I matter. I want to be able to say my children’s life matters.”

A bill that would have created a study committee to examine Mississippi’s voter disenfranchisement laws died, after it passed the House but was not taken up in the Senate.