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

A new poll of 200 Mississippians finds majority support for restoring voter rights to most people with felony convictions who have completed their sentences, the Southern Poverty Law Center announced Tuesday.

Conducted by Tulchin Research, the poll of registered voters was released on the last day to pass bills out of committee before they die, as Democrat lawmakers pushed for a bill that would re-enfranchise people with felony convictions upon the completion of their sentences.

“What’s exciting about it, in all honesty, is that for far too long, the proposition has been, that people should be punished forever,” said Jody Owens, managing attorney of the SPLC, which is currently suing the state over the constitutionality of its disenfranchisement laws. “This poll establishes … that people favor forgiveness and second chances when individuals have met their obligations under the law.”

Mississippi permanently strips people of their right to vote if they’ve been convicted of certain disenfranchising crimes. Established by the state constitution in 1890, those 22 crimes range from murder and rape to writing bad checks and receiving stolen property.

Sixty-eight percent of people polled indicated some support for restoring the voting rights of people with felony convictions after they complete their full sentences if they were not convicted of murder or sexual offenses. Broken down by demographics, 60 percent of Republicans surveyed supported the measure, compared to 82 percent of Democrats.

The poll found 23 percent of those surveyed opposed such a measure.

Sen. Derrick Simmons, D-Greenville

Democratic leaders Rep. David Baria, D-Bay St. Louis, and Sen. Derrick Simmons, D-Greenville, spoke in the Capitol rotunda Tuesday in favor of S.B. 2508, which would re-enfranchise people convicted of a disqualifying crime after completing their prison sentences. People sentenced to only probation would be able to vote immediately after sentencing, per the bill.

“It’s past time for us to do this,” said Baria, the House minority leader, referencing Florida’s Amendment 4, a ballot measure passed by 64 percent of voters in November. That amendment automatically restored a person’s right to vote upon completion of a felony sentence.

Prior to the passage of Amendment 4, Florida led the nation in its rate of disenfranchised residents. Now, Mississippi holds that title. One estimate by The Sentencing Project puts the number of disenfranchised Mississippians at 10 percent.

A bill to create a study committee on the issue could be taken up by the House this session.

Currently, people convicted of a disenfranchising crime in Mississippi can only have their suffrage restored in one of two ways: by an act of the Legislature requiring a two-thirds majority vote in both houses, or by a gubernatorial pardon.

The Mississippi Center for Justice is also challenging the state’s disenfranchisement laws in federal court.

SPLC’s Owens did not rule out the possibility of organizing signatures for a ballot initiative to amend the state constitution.

Such an initiative would first require the number of signatures amounting to 12 percent of the number of votes cast in the last gubernatorial election. Once on the ballot, a simple majority of voters would be needed for the amendment to pass.

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Michelle Liu was a 2018 corps member for Report for America, a national service program that places talented journalists in local newsrooms. She covered criminal justice issues across the state from June 2018 until May 2020. Prior to joining the Mississippi Today team, her work appeared in the New Haven Independent.