In the midst of the 2019 legislative session, Senate Judiciary B Chair Hob Bryan, D-Amory, was concerned about whether any bills to restore the voting rights of felons would survive the scrutiny of his committee.
Bryan said between committee members voting no on all attempts to restore voting rights to felons and committee members who might vote yes being absent he feared no suffrage bill would advance past his committee to the full Senate chamber for consideration.
Sen. Angela Turner-Ford, D-West Point, a committee member and Bryan’s deskmate, also was concerned about the fate of the suffrage bills. She expressed those concerns to Bryan and wondered about the criteria of some of her colleagues in voting on the legislation.
“I told her to tell the committee what she told me,” Bryan said.
After that conversation, the gates began to open. The result was that bills to restore voting rights to 16 felons passed through the legislative process and are currently before Gov. Phil Bryant.
In a state with nearly 10 percent of its adult population disenfranchised according to the Sentencing Project because of a felony record, 16 might not seem like many. But it is the most to make it through the legislative process since 2004 when 34 felons had their electoral rights restored.
Turner-Ford said all she did was ask members of the Senate Judiciary B committee what their criteria was for restoring voting rights. She said one member said for the right to be restored the felon needed to be out from the corrections system for five years while another said he wanted the felon to have paid all restitution. Turner-Ford said no member said they believed felons should lose their voting rights forever.
“It really was an effort to engage with members of the committee,” she said.
Bryan said, “Out of deference to Angela some people who were voting no started voting yes or at least stopped voting at all, letting more go through.”
Bryan also pointed out that another difference this session might have been another Angela – Rep. Angela Cockerham, I-Magnolia, who was appointed by House Speaker Philip Gunn, to replace Andy Gipson as chair of the House Judiciary B Committee. Gipson resigned from the House after he was appointed commissioner of agriculture by Gov. Phil Bryant.
Getting the bills through the process also was a priority for Cockerham and she wanted her committee members to buy into the effort.
“I have ideas that I think are good, but I also wanted to utilize them,” she said referring to members of her committee. “I wanted feedback from them.”
Cockerham said she started by garnering up to date information about the record of the person asking for the voting rights to be restored.
“Has MDOC (corrections department) checked everyone to make sure that they’re meeting the requirements? If so, then let’s put it before the full committee and let the committee decide,” she said.
The 1890s Mississippi Constitution strips away voting rights for many felony convictions. And under the Constitution the only way to restore the voting rights is through filing a bill for each individual seeking suffrage restoration or through the governor issuing a pardon.
Before the 2019 session, there had been only 18 felons to have had their voting rights restored since 2012. Since the 2000 session there have been 147 people who have had their rights restored by the Legislature. In 2012 and 2016, there were none and in the 2013 session only one suffrage bill made it through the maze that can be the legislative process.
“Everybody thinks going through these one at a time is not the best way to handle this,” Bryan said.
Plus, Bryan said often the process boils down to “people who know somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody tend to be the ones who get legislation filed.”
Patrick Joseph Fick of Harrison County is trying for the second year in a row to have his voting rights restored. Last year the Legislature passed his bill, but it was vetoed by Gov. Phil Bryant, who said that Fick had been in more trouble since his initial conviction 27 years ago for receiving stolen property and for a drug possession violation. Normally, the governor allows the suffrage bills to become law without his signature. But apparently the wrong information about Fick had been sent to the governor, prompting Bryant to take the active step of vetoing the bill. Fick is hopeful to regain his rights this year. His bill is pending before Bryant.
Fick said he wanted to regain his voting rights but was not sure how to do it when a friend said his brother-in-law, Rep. Richard Bennett, R-Long Beach, might be able to help. Bennett learned Fick’s story and agreed to file the bill.
“I didn’t even know there was a suffrage committee,” Fick said.
He said there is “a lot of hoops to jump through” to successfully regain voting rights through the Legislate.
Fick said he “absolutely” planned to vote this year in state elections if he is successful.
“I feel it is such an arbitrary process for members of a committee to judge a person based upon what we see on paper,” said Turner-Ford.
The Mississippi Constitution contains a list of crimes for which a felon loses his voting rights. There are other crimes, such as crimes connected with the sale of drugs, where a felon does not lose the right to vote and actually is eligible to vote while incarcerated.
The original list of crimes deemed to be disenfranchising has been updated by official opinions from the Attorney General’s office through the years to coincide with modern criminal law.
The crimes on the list via the AG opinion are arson, armed robbery, bigamy, bribery, embezzlement, extortion, felony bad check, felony shoplifting, forgery, larceny, murder, obtaining money or goods under false pretense, perjury, rape, receiving stolen property, robbery, theft, timber larceny, unlawful taking of a motor vehicle, statutory rape, carjacking and larceny under lease or rental agreement.
Legislation to automatically restore voting rights to most felons at some point after serving their sentence is introduced most years in the Legislature and in past years has passed one chamber, but died in the other.
Bryan has held hearings on the issue in recent years, plus there is a lawsuit in federal court challenging the constitutionality of permanently removing voting rights.
Mississippi is in the minority of states, less than 10, where voting rights are not automatically restored for felons either after they complete their sentence or at some point after completing their parole or probation. In two states, Maine and Vermont, the felons never lose their voting rights.
Erica Hensley contributed reporting to this story.