Mississippi Today political reporters Bobby Harrison and Geoff Pender discuss with House Judiciary B Chair Rep. Nick Bain, R-Corinth, the state provision imposing a lifetime voting ban on some people convicted of felonies and whether it could be changed without going through the burdensome process of amending the Mississippi Constitution.

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Adam Ganucheau: Welcome to The Other Side, Mississippi Today’s political podcast. The Other Side lets you hear directly from the most connected players and observers across the spectrum of politics. From breaking news to political strategy to interviews with candidates and elected officials, we’ll bring you facts, perspectives and context that helps you cut through the noise and understand all sides of the story.

Bobby Harrison: I’m Bobby Harrison, political reporter for Mississippi Today. I’m here with my colleague, Geoff Pender, also political reporter. Geoff, how you doing, man? 

Geoff Pender: Hey Bobby. 

Bobby Harrison: Well, we’re going to talk about something other than medical marijuana, so I hope we can hang to do that. We’re going to talk with Representative Nick Bain from up from Corinth.

He’s the House judiciary B chair. Representative Bain, how you doing? 

Rep. Nick Bain: Hey, Bobby, Geoff, how are y’all? Thanks for having me.

Bobby Harrison: Thanks for doing it. Look, the primary thing we want to talk about— we may touch on a lot of subjects, but the primary thing we want to talk about is you have a hearing coming up soon on what is it? Is it the 28th?

Rep. Nick Bain: Yeah, next Thursday, October 28, 10 o’clock we’re going to have a hearing on suffrage, disenfranchisement of individuals that have committed a crime. We’re going to talk about it and see what, if anything, we can do as a legislator to legislative body to really take this out of the hands of the Legislature.

Bobby Harrison: Yeah. For background, the state constitution, there’s a certain number of crimes. I can’t remember how many— you may know precisely how many— that where if you commit those crimes and then convicted of committing those crimes, you lose your right to vote forever unless it is restored by two-thirds vote of both chambers of the Legislature and signed into law by the governor or the governor issues a pardon. Right now, that issue is in court. It has been challenged on its constitutionality in court, but what’s your thoughts on the whole 

Rep. Nick Bain: issue?

Yeah, my thoughts boil down to the fact that I don’t think this is a legitimate function of the Legislature. I don’t think it’s something that we should be doing. But does that mean that people who are felons should have their rights restored? I don’t know.

I think that’s certainly an issue to be debated, but I don’t think it belongs in the Legislature. I think it’s an issue for the judicial branch of government, if you will. We allow judges to restore gun rights. We allow them to expunge records of people, and I think it’s more consistent. And it should be more readily available through the judicial system than the legislative body, and that’s the biggest concern that I have about it is I just don’t think the Legislature should be in this business.

Geoff Pender: Chairman Bain, if you could for those who maybe, you know, don’t watch the Legislature and probably certainly haven’t seen a disenfranchisement or suffrage bill, explain cause I think maybe a lot of people don’t understand. I mean, this is typically is pretty rarely done, but when it’s done, it’s a cumbersome process in the Legislature, is it not? 

Rep. Nick Bain: Yeah, it really is. It’s very convoluted. Bobby alluded to it earlier about the crimes that are disenfranchised, and I think that’s a problem. A lot of people think, “I get a felony. Well, I can’t vote anymore.” But that’s not the case. There’s only about 23 that the attorney general has identified as disenfranchising felonies. Those range from arson, armed robbery to a bad check to some type of theft, a timber larceny, something like that.

What’s not on that list is stuff like child pornography or fondling or some of that stuff. So first off, the one problem is people don’t know. I think that’s a big issue. People don’t know if they could vote or not. I’ve had people, constituents of mine, that have asked me to do a suffrage bill for them, and then we go through the process. The way that happened— and I’ll explain it —somebody contacts me for a suffrage bill. I then fill out the information with the Department of DPS, Department of Public Safety, and they can do a background check on everything to see if first off, if they are disenfranchised. This one constituent I’m talking to, he had a felony 20 years ago and come to find out he never really lost his right to vote, so he didn’t even know. For 20 years he didn’t vote because he thought he couldn’t, so that’s a problem. But then they contact us, and we fill out this information. Then we file a bill, and that bill is then sent to the respective chamber.

In my case, in the House typically we take those up in the last week of session, as you guys know. I think last year in the House we passed 18 or 19 of these, and then it went over to the Senate and they passed two or three. I can’t really remember. 

Bobby Harrison: So what you’re saying is two or three got to the governor’s office to actually get through the process.

Rep. Nick Bain: That’s right. And that’s a, you know, that’s a very minute number. It’s very cumbersome as Geoff said. You have to know a legislator first to do that, and not everybody lives in a rural area like I do where we’re pretty accessible. Not saying that the other members aren’t, but just saying with my more rural area, people tend to know their legislators more. But again, people got to know a legislator to be able to file that bill for them.

And then it’s got to go through the whole process of getting it done. In my 10 years, I’ve filed a dozen or suffrage bills, and I can only remember really one making it through. So it is cumbersome. It is time-consuming on the legislative process. I know we take them up in the last throws of the session, and really it shouldn’t be a place for the Legislature to be in this.

So like I said, expungements are a way that goes to a judge. Somebody will hire a lawyer. That lawyer will take it to a judge, and I think that same process should be done with these. But that is the problem. This is, as y’all alluded to, is constitutional. So it’s not just changing a statute or filing a bill to change the statute. It’s a constitutional issue that requires a whole lot, a greater burden to go. 

Geoff Pender: Sure. Chairman Bain, back to the list of disqualifying felonies or whatever, at least the original list in the constitution it dates back to Jim Crow, and a lot of people pointed out that it was engineered to disenfranchise disproportionately Black people.

Rep. Nick Bain: I don’t think that that’s up for debate. I think that that’s true of my understanding. I think we’re the only state in the union that does it this way. I did an interview last week with The Guardian, Sam Levine at The Guardian, and he’s following this issue too. And he told me, you know, this is the only way that it’s done in the union, which is outdated. The crimes themselves are crimes that are typically those of some type of theft outside of your murder and the violent offenses which we get. But some of these crimes, like there’s one, that’s disenfranchised. I mean, it’s bigamy. I’ve been practicing law for 15 years. I don’t know that I’ve ever represented anybody on the charge of bigamy. So it is outdated and obsolete. 

Bobby Harrison: Yeah, I’ve said this before, but you know, under our system, you could be a major drug dealer serving time in Parchman and vote and write a bad check and lose your right to vote forever. 

Rep. Nick Bain: That’s exactly right. And that inconsistency gives me a lot of heartburn on this. It’s just not fair. And I think it’s unAmerican, the way that we go about this. 

Geoff Pender: Chairman, you mentioned the judiciary being in charge and I guess something like expungement, but I mean is this something you could just set up a framework of, you know, just make a list and, you know, once you’ve done your time if you’ve done these crimes, then you have the right to vote automatically restored or does there need to be some other process?

Rep. Nick Bain: Yeah. And that’s sort of what the hearing is going to be about next week is what can we do with this being a constitutional provision? What can we do? But yeah, Geoff, that’s sort of what I have in mind is. You know, something happened either what your crime is, be it a bad check or false pretenses or something, a minor non-violent offense that maybe you have your rights restored by operation of law.

And then as you go up the ladder all the way up to some type of grand larceny or burglary or something like that, you have to petition the court and have to show good fitness and character, and that you’ve been rehabbed or whatever the case may be. Or you could just do it similar, very similar to our expungement statute, which is that you petition the court, show them that you’ve had good character for the past five years since you’ve been off probation or your sentence has been complete and you take that to the judge and you make your case in front of the judge. But in any event, I think it’s a more accessible for people if they’re able to go to a court to do that. I think it’s more efficient. And again, it’s more of a proper place that the court system has followed an individual for the most part from the beginning of the process until the end. There’s no reason to shift over to a legislative branch to continue this.

Bobby Harrison: Yeah. To me the $64,000 question, if you will, and you alluded to it, I mean, what can you do by general law without having to go through a constitutional amendment? I mean, several years, I don’t know if you remember, but you were in the Legislature. I looked this up. Several years ago, the House did pass a bill and sent over to the Senate that restored rights for most felonies. I think not murder and rape, but for other felonies and they just said they were doing the bill, doing for everybody what you do for each individual. I think is the way it would be. Are you familiar with that bill? 

Rep. Nick Bain: Yeah, you can do it. The Legislature could restore rights to individuals convicted of a crime, like felony shoplifting, through a two-thirds vote if I’m not mistaken without the need of constitutional amendment. Nothing prevents the Legislature from restoring rights to large groups of people. The issue I think is I think that can only be done retroactive. That’s a question that will be answered at the hearing.

I don’t know that that could be done for those future convicted. Does that make sense? 

Bobby Harrison: Yeah. Yeah. So it would be, you could do sorta some type of carte blanche law that restored rights to tens of thousands of people, but you can’t go out in the future and say, “People who commit crimes in the future will have their rights automatically restored,” or whatever system you came up with.

Rep. Nick Bain: Right. That’s the question that I don’t have the answer to right now. 

Bobby Harrison: Yeah, the House passed that bill in I think it was 2008. It probably would not have withstood judicial scrutiny, but you know, y’all have passed bills before that might not, you know, might not withstand scrutiny too. Who knows what the scrutiny is going to be these days, but who all is going to be testifying at the hearing?

Rep. Nick Bain: Yeah, I’ve got a list of right here. I’m going to have Dennis Hopkins, who was someone this would affect, someone who has had their rights disenfranchised; Ryan Burns, who’s a former district attorney now in the private sector who does a lot of expungement law and a lot of restoring gun rights, stuff like that; Roy Harness, and this is another one that has had his rights disenfranchised; Paloma Lu. She is the deputy director of impact legislation with Rob McDuff’s group. She’s going to come and talk to us and help us determine where we are and what we can do. And then forgive me on this last guy’s name, Neal Aubryany. He is with the Center for Secure and Modern Elections.

Again, he’s going to give us ideas. I’ve talked to them at length a couple of times, and they have provided us with some materials on what other states have done, other conservative states like Florida, Louisiana, with some other states, what they’ve done. He’s going to talk about that and where we can go with this constitutional provision, you know, sort of stuff that we talked about, allowing suffrage back to large groups or even ideas like requiring the secretary of state to provide a database for people who have been convicted. A felon needs to just to go on there to look to see if they’re disenfranchised. So that’s the people right now. There may be one or two more, but right now that’s who I have. 

Bobby Harrison: And you mentioned Rob McDuff’s office, and I forget the name of the person who’s going to testify but they have a lawsuit pending, them and some other folks, pending in the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals that would challenge the whole constitutionality of the suffrage process in Mississippi. So that’s going on at the same time. 

Rep. Nick Bain: Right. And they’re going to talk to the extent that they’re able about some of that.

Geoff Pender: Sure. Chairman Bain, you being in the Legislature I think we these days have to ask you. And at this point, this is still in limbo, but what are you hearing on a potential special session and the whole medical marijuana issue right now? 

Rep. Nick Bain: Yeah, you know, I don’t hear anything. Honestly, the speaker was up here this week, and we talked about it and he’s of the same mindset. You know, it’s in the governor’s purview.

The governor told us to get an agreement. My understanding there is basically an agreement between the House and the Senate, and there may be some minute stuff that’s out there, but for the most part there’s an agreement and the Legislature stands ready to come back and handle the issue. We’re just waiting on the call.

I’m of the personal opinion at this point, you know we’re at the end of October. We’re running out of time, so to speak. So I don’t know. I’m not hearing anything more than what I guess you guys are, but I will say to your listeners and to y’all that the Legislature, especially the House stands ready to go back and do the work if the governor calls us. 

Bobby Harrison: Just to get you on the record, you would support some type of medical marijuana legislation. 

Rep. Nick Bain: Yeah, I would. And you know, my district supported it. Overwhelmingly people in Mississippi support it. So yeah, I think it’s time for us to go down this road and make this product available.

Geoff Pender: Are you pleased with what you’ve seen in the agreement draft?

Rep. Nick Bain: You know, there’s no perfect deal, but for the most part, I think it’s on par with most of what the rest of the country is. It certainly does have some stuff that I don’t favor. You know, there are some issues about the churches that I’d like to see tweaked a little bit. There’s some issues about maybe the levels, but again, I can live with some of the levels and stuff like that.

I would like to have a little bit more information about what remedies are out there for some of your business owners and landlords and stuff. But for the most part, the overall product I think is pretty good. 

Bobby Harrison: Is there anything else you want to cover today with us? Anything standing out to you that you want to talk about?

Rep. Nick Bain: Not off the top of my head. You know, we’re looking forward to sessions around the corner.

Bobby Harrison: Y’all got a lot off stuff on the agenda. 

Rep. Nick Bain: We do, and it’ll be interesting to see what happens. You know, it’s the third year of the term. Y’all know what that means. We always try not to be as controversial, but I don’t know if that’s going to be the case this year.

Bobby Harrison: Well, Representative Nick Bain from Corinth, is it District Two? That’s right, isn’t it?

Rep. Nick Bain: District Two, uh huh. 

Bobby Harrison: You used to go into Tishomingo County a little bit, didn’t you? 

Rep. Nick Bain: No, I’ve only been in Alcorn my whole time. I’ve lost a little bit of East Alcorn population, which we’ll see that’s a big issue, you know, coming up with redistricting, so we’ll see what happens. 

Bobby Harrison: Yeah. There’s a lot of stuff going on up there that a lot of people in Mississippi don’t know about. But Corinth is one of my favorite places in the whole wide world just to visit. 

Rep. Nick Bain: Come visit us and bring the checkbooks. Spend a lot of money.

Geoff Pender: And eat a slug burger.

Rep. Nick Bain: That’s right. Eat a slug burger and some tamales and, you know, drink a Coke. That’s it. 

Geoff Pender: Okay. Well, Chairman Bain, thank you again for joining us today. Really appreciate you talking with us. 

Bobby Harrison: Thank you. 

Rep. Nick Bain: All right, guys. Thank you.

Adam Ganucheau: As we cover the biggest political stories in this state, you don’t want to miss an episode of The Other Side. We’ll bring you more reporting from every corner of the state, sharing the voices of Mississippians and how they’re impacted by the news. So, what do we need from you, the listener? We need your feedback and support.

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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.

Geoff Pender serves as senior political reporter, working closely with Mississippi Today leadership on editorial strategy and investigations. Pender brings 30 years of political and government reporting experience to Mississippi Today. He was political and investigative editor at the Clarion Ledger, where he also penned a popular political column. He previously served as an investigative reporter and political editor at the Sun Herald, where he was a member of the Pulitzer Prize-winning team for Hurricane Katrina coverage. Originally from Florence, Mississippi, Pender is a journalism graduate of the University of Southern Mississippi and has received numerous awards throughout his career for reporting, columns and freedom of information efforts.