Rep. Tommy Reynolds, D-Charleston, speaks about the lottery bill during a special session of the Legislature at the Capitol in Jackson Friday, August 24, 2018. Credit: Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today/ Report for America

Longtime state Rep. Tommy Reynolds, a Democrat from Water Valley, successfully amended Republican-backed legislation designed to purge voter rolls to restore suffrage to military veterans who had lost their right to vote because of felony convictions.

Reynolds has in previous years filed bills to restore the right to vote to veterans who had been convicted of felonies. Those bills were never considered in committee.

But before the full House on Wednesday, Reynolds was successful in amending a bill he and other House Democrats would normally oppose to restore voting rights to members of the military.

After Reynolds’ amendment, House Bill 1310 passed on an 86-31 vote. The bill needed a two-thirds (or at least 78 yeas) vote to pass under guidelines of the Mississippi Constitution. The constitution requires a two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate to restore voting rights to those convicted of felonies. The bill now goes to the Senate unless the House Republican leadership attempts to call the bill back up to try to remove the Reynolds amendment.

The Reynolds amendment split the minority Democratic caucus. House Democrats have been working for years to change the state constitutional provision requiring a two-thirds vote of both chambers to restore voting rights to people convicted of felonies.

Some of the Democrats still voted against the bill because of the voter purge provision. But other Democrats, such as Reynolds, supported it because of the amendment restoring voting rights to veterans.

Rep. Brent Powell, R-Brandon, the original author of the bill, told House members he was “vehemently” opposed to the Reynolds amendment because it would make it a two-thirds vote to pass.

Rep. Robert Johnson, D-Natchez, the minority leader, said to Powell, “This amendment restores suffrage to veterans, people … who risked their lives for their country, and you are asking us to vote against that?”

Powell said he would be willing to consider the issue in a separate bill, but did not want it in his legislation because it raised the threshold to pass it.

“Military veterans and their right to vote is less important than you being able to remove people from the voter rolls?” Johnson asked.

The amendment passed on a voice vote. There was a loud voice vote in support of the proposal, and it appeared there would be a loud vote in opposition. But the voices of those in opposition trailed off dramatically and the speaker ruled that the amendment had been passed.

Mississippi is one of less than 10 states that do not restore voting right to all people convicted of felonies at some point after they complete their sentence. A lawsuit pending before the U.S. Supreme Court alleges the Mississippi provision is unconstitutional.

Besides restoring the right to vote to military veterans convicted of felonies, the bill would make multiple other changes to state election law, including:

  • Authorizing the Secretary of State to audit county election procedures.
  • Placing on an inactive voter roll those who do not vote in two consecutive federal elections or one state and one federal election if they also do not respond before the next election to a card confirming they are still at the same address.

Democrats have opposed such voter purge efforts, saying that people may not vote because of multiple reasons, including not liking any candidate on the ballot. In other states with similar voter purge provisions, Democrats maintain that thousands of registered voters have been removed mistakenly from the rolls.

Reynolds also was successful in amending the bill to stipulate that people who voted in any election, including municipal elections or who responded to a jury summons also would not be subject to being placed on an inactive list.

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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.