Sen. Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, is photographed during a Senate Judiciary Committee meeting, Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2019, in Jackson, Miss. Fillingane helped usher through the Senate Public Health and Welfare Committee, a bill that would ban abortion once a fetal heartbeat is detected, as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. Supporters and opponents anticipate a court fight if passed into law. Credit: Rogelio V. Solis, Associated Press

Senate Judiciary B Chair Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, said he will decide early this week whether to take up nine House bills restoring voting rights to people convicted of felonies.

Fillingane said it is probable that at least some of the suffrage bills will be taken up in his Judiciary B Committee with the intent to send them to the full Senate chamber for consideration.

“We’re looking at them now,” said Fillingane.

The state’s 1890s’ Jim Crow-era Constitution strips voting rights of people convicted of certain felonies. The right to vote can be restored via legislation approved by a two-thirds vote of both chambers of the Legislature and the signature of the governor.

Mississippi is one of less than 10 states that do not automatically restore the right to vote of people convicted of felonies at some point after they complete their sentence.

Mississippi Votes, a grassroots group that promotes voter access, said in a statement it is time to reform the process of restoring suffrage.

“Not only is the process unclear but it is also not equitable,” the statement read. “Mississippians who may be attempting to restore their voting rights have to make a journey to the state Capitol to retrieve a paper application, fill it out by hand, and then return it to their representative. There is no online form of the application that can be downloaded or emailed, provided by the state Legislature.

“The state Legislature has also made it impossible to gather any information about the process. Individuals would have to either ask a legislator directly for information, of which there is no uniform response or ask a third-party organization to help them get a better understanding of how the process works.”

Some of the people who are seeking to have their voting rights restored in these bills are being aided by Mississippi Votes.

In the 2021 session, the House passed 21 bills restoring voting rights. All but two of those were killed in the Senate Judiciary B Committee. At the time, Fillingane said that the Judiciary B Committee has guidelines that prohibit the restoration of voting rights to those convicted of violent crimes and those convicted of embezzling public funds.

House Judiciary B Chair Nick Bain, R-Corinth, who passed the suffrage bills out of committee said last year that is essentially the same criteria he uses.

Bain said he does not believe any additional bills restoring voting rights will be taken up in the House this session, which is scheduled to end Sunday.

The prohibition on voting is part of the 1890 Mississippi Constitution — added as one of several attempts to prevent Black Mississippians from voting. Framers at the time admitted they were incorporating crimes into the Constitution to ban voting rights that they believed Black Mississippians were more likely to commit. 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.

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

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.

Bain offered legislation this session to clarify that people who have their felony conviction expunged through the legal process should also regain the right to vote. He said in some jurisdictions the right to vote is restored with the expungement but in others it is not.

It appeared that the legislation clarifying the expungement process had died in the Senate, but Bain was able to revive the bill later in the process, It is now part of a bill providing pay raises to district attorneys and judges.

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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.