The Mississippi Legislature, for the first time since 2016, did not restore voting rights to any person convicted of a felony.
Mississippi is the only state in the nation that requires people convicted of certain felonies to petition the Legislature to restore their voting rights. Most years the Legislature passes a handful of bills — normally about five — to restore voting rights to individuals convicted of felonies.
Seven bills restoring voting rights died on the Senate calendar when the 2023 session ended on Saturday around 2 a.m. Senate Judiciary B Chair Joey Fillingane, R-Sumrall, said he opted to let the bills die instead of bringing them up for a vote because he did not think he could garner the two-thirds majority needed to pass each bill.
“It seemed like there was not enough support,” Fillingane said. “They barely passed out of committee on close votes. And before the full Senate, it takes a two-thirds vote instead of a majority vote to pass. Instead of embarrassing anyone by calling them up and having them defeated, we decided not to call them up.”
Fillingane said he spoke with the senators who he thought would be on the fence, and they all indicated they would be “no” votes.
Mississippi is among a handful of states — fewer than 10 — that do not restore voting rights at some point after people complete their sentence. And Mississippi is the only state requiring people to navigate the cumbersome legislative maze to have their voting rights restored.
The most suffrage bills passed in one session during the 2000s was in 2004 when 34 were approved, according to a Mississippi Today analysis. In 2009, 2012 and 2016, like this past session, no felony suffrage bill was approved. In 2021, there were five approved and in 2021 two were passed.
A lawsuit is pending before the U.S. Supreme that argues Mississippi’s felony suffrage provisions are in violation of the U.S. Constitution. The lawsuit argues that the provision was placed in the state’s 1890 constitution as one of many devices to prevent Black Mississippians from voting. The thought at the time was that impoverished African Americans might be more prone to commit certain crimes like theft and embezzlement, so those specific crimes were determined by the writers of the state constitution to be disenfranchising crimes. Meanwhile, the framers deemed people did not lose the right to vote for many more serious crimes such as murder and rape.
In 2022, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals conceded that the provision was placed in the state constitution as a deterrent to African Americans voting. But the appeals court ruled in a split decision that because the state constitution was amended later to make murder and rape disenfranchising crimes, that the 1890 provision was no longer unconstitutional.
The Mississippi Center for Justice and others are appealing that decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Rob McDuff, an attorney with the center, said the fact that the Supreme Court has not yet dismissed the case could be a good sign and suggest the justices “are continuing to look at it.” The case was appealed to the Supreme Court in October 2022.
McDuff said it was disappointing that the Legislature did not restore any voting rights this session, but stressed that there are “thousands of people who have served their sentence and the fact that the Legislature generally restores voting rights to a few each session is another indication that the provision in the 1890 Constitution should be repealed in its entirety.”
Fillingane said the Senate in recent years has normally restored voting rights to only those convicted of crimes that would be considered non-violent, such as embezzlement. He said those convicted this year were convicted of crimes that could be considered more violent, such as robbery. One of the people under consideration had been convicted of using public property illegally. The Senate has routinely refused to take up cases where people were convicted of stealing or embezzling public funds.
But Fillingane said as chair of the Judiciary B Committee he wanted to give those people an opportunity this year but opted not to bring them up before the full Senate because he did not think there were enough votes to pass them.
The original list of crimes deemed to be disenfranchising has been updated by official opinions from the Attorney General’s office through the years to coincide with modern criminal law.
The crimes on the list via the opinions 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.