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A House judiciary committee will delve into the state’s ban on voting for people convicted of certain felonies — one of the remaining vestiges of Mississippi’s Jim Crow-era where the white political leadership enacted laws to prevent African Americans from voting.
The meeting will begin Thursday at 10 a.m. in room 113 of the Mississippi Capitol.
Rep. Nick Bain, a Republican from Corinth and chair of the House Judiciary B Committee, said “it is an issue to be debated” on whether people convicted of felonies should regain their voting rights, but “I don’t think this is a legitimate function of the Legislature. I don’t think it is something we should be doing.”
Under Mississippi’s one-of-a-kind process in the nation, people convicted of certain felonies can go to the Legislature to have their rights restored via a two-thirds vote of both chambers of the Legislature or through a pardon from the governor.
The Legislature, in most years, restores voting rights to a handful of people — normally less than five. Gov. Tate Reeves hasn’t restored voting rights to any Mississippian through pardon in his two years in office. Likewise, former Gov. Phil Bryant did not grant voting rights to a single person convicted of a felony through pardon in his eight years in office.
“I think it’s an issue for the judicial branch of government, if you will,” Bain said during an interview on Mississippi Today’s “The Other Side” podcast last week. “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 — I just don’t think the Legislature should be in this business.”
In the 1890s, the Mississippi Supreme Court wrote the disfranchisement of people of these specific felonies was placed in the Constitution “to obstruct the exercise of the franchise by the negro race” by targeting “the offenses to which its weaker members were prone.” The crimes selected by lawmakers to go into the provision were thought by the white political leaders at the time as more likely to be committed by African Americans.
That provision is currently being challenged on constitutional grounds in the federal courts with a case pending before the 5th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. Attorneys in that case have argued that the provision’s intent is the same as the poll tax, the literacy test and other Jim Crow-era provisions that sought to prevent African Americans from voting.
Scheduled to testify before the Judiciary B Committee on Thursday include those who have lost their rights, various advocates and others.
One question that will be explored is if any of the felony suffrage procedure can be changed without a constitutional amendment that would require approval by two-thirds of both chambers of the Legislature and approval by a majority of the electorate voting on the issue.