A Harrison County man moves closer to having his voting rights restored — but it hasn’t been easy

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Patrick Joseph Fick is a familiar sight around Harrison County-owned properties. A painter who has worked for the county for 18 years, Fick keeps the walls of county buildings well-maintained, often working evenings and weekends.

These days, Fick thinks of himself as a law-abiding citizen, but that wasn’t always the case. In 1992 — more than 25 years ago — he pleaded guilty to receiving stolen property and possession of a controlled substance.

“Back then, I was young and dumb and stupid,” Fick told Mississippi Today in a telephone interview.

Patrick Joseph Fick

Patrick Joseph Fick

He subsequently spent three years in state prison, completing the notorious and now-defunct Regimented Inmate Discipline Program at Parchman Farm, as well as five years on probation. But Fick soon discovered that there was one more punitive measure in store: Under the state constitution, the receiving stolen property conviction would permanently ban Fick from ever voting in an election.

Last year, Fick’s local lawmaker, Rep. Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach, sponsored a bill to restore Fick’s right to vote. But Gov. Phil Bryant vetoed that bill, citing in a letter that Fick continued to violate the law after his initial disqualifying felony conviction.

In her first House Judiciary B Committee meeting as chairperson on Thursday morning, Rep. Angela Cockerham, D-Magnolia, read Bryant’s letter aloud, and then acknowledged that Bryant’s veto had been based on a mistake — and that Fick had in fact not been convicted of another crime.

Bennett intends to re-introduce Fick’s suffrage bill, and the committee will then take it up again, Cockerham said during the meeting.

“We follow a very specific process before deciding whether or not to veto suffrage bills,” said Knox Graham, a spokesman for the governor, regarding Fick’s bill. “Information given to our office by local law enforcement indicated a continued criminal record. This year, as always, Gov. Bryant will review any bill that makes it to his desk thoroughly before a decision to sign it is made.”

On Thursday morning, Fick took a call from a Mississippi Today reporter from the middle of a field at the Harrison County fairgrounds, where he was re-painting old sheds.

“Wow, that’s awesome,” said Fick, after the reporter told him that his suffrage bill would be re-introduced this session. “You just made my day.”

Fick, who did not know his bill would get a second chance, said the confusion about his criminal background arose after the committee called the Harrison County sheriff last year for a background check. The sheriff mistakenly relayed a domestic violence charge from nearly a decade ago that had actually belonged to Fick’s now-deceased son, Timothy, Fick said.

Trying to regain his right to vote has been a series of trials and errors for Fick, now 51, who first paid a lawyer to try to get his record expunged, only to find out that his receiving stolen property conviction was not eligible for expungement.

He then followed the advice of a friend and tried to get a pardon from the governor. That didn’t work either, as Fick was indeed guilty of the crimes he committed.

Finally, a good friend of Fick’s said his brother-in-law — Bennett, the state representative — might be able to help.

“I said, ‘Heck, it’s worth trying,'” Fick said. “And then that fell through. So I said, ‘Well, man, this just ain’t looking good for the home team.'”

Fick’s situation illustrates the difficulties inherent in Mississippi’s current re-enfranchisement process for people under the state’s lifetime voting ban, established by the 1890 state constitution. People who have lost their right to vote after being convicted of one the state’s 22 disenfranchising crimes can only regain those rights through an act of the state legislature or a pardon by the governor.

In practice, individual suffrage bills are rarely successful. One estimate, by the Sentencing Project, puts the number of Mississippians who’ve had their right to vote restored between 2000 and 2015 at 335. A Mississippi Today analysis found over 56,000 people disenfranchised between 1994 and 2017.

Two lawsuits, filed by the Mississippi Center for Justice and the Southern Poverty Law Center, are currently pending in federal court. Both challenge how the state disqualifies people of their voting rights following a felony conviction.

As a state, Mississippi now has the highest rate of disenfranchised residents. The former leader, Florida, passed a referendum last November to restore voting rights to people who have completed their felony sentences.

This year, Mississippi lawmakers could introduce legislation to automatically restore those rights for Mississippians as well, though previous bills have died in recent years. Gov. Bryant, who has said he opposes such changes, does not sign suffrage bills that come before him, instead allowing them to pass without his signature.

Prior to his criminal conviction, Fick had never cast a vote, he said.

“It’s really disheartening,” Fick said. “I’m doing everything right … I’m a totally different person. I’m not a heathen.”