Omar Travis is pictured with his wife Leslie.

Jackson resident Omar Travis was released from prison about four years ago after being convicted of receiving stolen property. Before that, in 1991, he was convicted on a burglary charge.

This legislative session, Travis was among the 21 former people convicted of felonies who House leaders decided should have their voting rights restored. The only way to have voting rights restored in Mississippi is through legislative action or gubernatorial pardon, which is why Travis was relieved when the House passed his suffrage bill.

But Senate leaders killed his bill along with 18 others, ultimately deciding to pass just two of the House’s proposed suffrage bills.

Travis, who now works as a mental health technician counseling troubled youth in a clinic setting, was obviously disappointed by the outcome.

“This country was founded on no taxation without representation,” Travis said. “We are supposed to be ‘returning citizens.’ That is the phrase that has been coined. But why should a citizen not have the right to vote?”

Mississippi is in the minority of states — less than 10 — where voting rights are not automatically restored for people convicted of felonies either after they complete their sentence or at some point after completing parole or probation. 

The state now denies a higher percentage of its residents the right to vote because of felony convictions than any state in the country, according to a recent study. In Mississippi, 235,150 people — or 10.6% of the state’s voting age population — have lost their right to vote, according to a recent study by The Sentencing Project, a national nonprofit that advocates for voting and criminal justice issues. Since 2016, Mississippi has moved from second to first highest percentage in the nation.

And there are grave effects particularly on Black Mississippians. The prohibition on voting is part of the 1890 Mississippi Constitution — added as one of several attempts to prevent Black Mississippians from voting. With African Americans still being disproportionately convicted of crimes, that continues to be the effect of the disenfranchisement language.

A 2018 analysis by Mississippi Today found that 61% of the Mississippians who have lost their rights to vote are African American, despite the fact that African Americans represent 36% of the state’s total voting-age population.

Had the Senate had passed those 21 House proposals this year and sent them to Gov. Tate Reeves, it would have been the most bills restoring suffrage to people convicted of felonies passed by the Legislature since 2004. That year, 34 people had their voting rights restored through the legislative process.

Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, said when he was appointed by Lt. Gov. Delbert Hosemann to chair the Judiciary B Committee, he discussed with Hosemann what criteria should be used in passing suffrage bills out of the committee.

Fillingane said it was agreed that the committee would steer clear of bills restoring voting rights to those convicted of violent crimes and those convicted of embezzling public funds. That was the criteria, Fillingane said, used during the 2021 session, resulting in the Senate passing only two of the 21 bills approved by the House.

House Judiciary B Chair Nick Bain, R-Corinth, who passed the 21 bills ultimately approved by the House out of his committee, said the criteria used by the Senate Judiciary B Committee was basically the same as what he used.

“We did pass some convicted of violent crimes, but they were old convictions,” Bain said.

The events of the 2021 session highlight the chaotic and inefficient manner of tasking the Legislature with restoring voting rights on a case-by-case basis.

Norman Ivey of Florence is in the same boat as Travis. The House passed his suffrage bill in the 2021 session, but the Senate ultimately killed it. Ivey said he was convicted of multiple crimes: burglary of an occupied dwelling, aggravated assault and possession of precursor chemicals to manufacture crystal meth.

Norman Ivey of Florence

“I spent all my junior years locked up before then,” Ivey said. “I was raised by drug addicts… I did not stand a chance.”

Despite those odds, Ivey eventually did turn his life around. Ivey now has a job and questions why he should not have the right to vote like other taxpaying citizens. Ivey said he has been trouble-free for about 12 years, owns a plumbing business and works with a non-profit tutoring troubled youth.

“What do you have to do to get this right back?” Ivey asked. “I pay taxes regularly. I have a business I pay taxes on. I pay taxes on my house. Yet people say I have no say in who represents me. I have no voice.”

Both Travis and Ivey credited their Christian faith in turning their lives around. The 2021 session was the third for Travis to attempt to get a bill passed to have his voting rights restored. The 2021 session was Ivey’s first attempt to regain his voting rights.

The Constitution contains a list of crimes for which a person convicted of a felony loses voting rights. Disenfranchising crimes include: 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.

There are other crimes, such as crimes connected with the sale of drugs, where a person convicted of a felony does not lose the right to vote and actually is eligible to vote while incarcerated.

“Until recently, I didn’t even know what path to take” to get voting rights restored, Ivey told Mississippi Today.

The two bills that did pass this year were allowed to become law without Gov. Reeves’ signature. Bain, the House committee chairman, said he plans to have hearings on the issue this summer.

Rep. Chris Bell, the Jackson Democrat who sponsored the suffrage bill for Travis, said people should have their rights restored at some point after finishing their sentence “after they have paid their debt to society.”

“We’re always talking about second chances,” Bell said. “But having voting rights restored is giving someone a second chance.”

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Bobby Harrison, Mississippi Today’s senior capitol reporter, covers politics, government and the Mississippi State Legislature. He also writes a weekly news analysis which is co-published in newspapers statewide. A native of Laurel, Bobby joined our team June 2018 after working for the North Mississippi Daily Journal in Tupelo since 1984. He is president of the Mississippi Capitol Press Corps Association and works with the Mississippi State University Stennis Institute to organize press luncheons. Bobby has a bachelor's in American Studies from the University of Southern Mississippi and has received multiple awards from the Mississippi Press Association, including the Bill Minor Best Investigative/In-depth Reporting and Best Commentary Column.