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One Crime, But a Lifetime of Silence: Voting ban under review in Mississippi

The Mississippi Legislature recently held hearings regarding the state’s lifetime voting ban. This ban was originally enacted as part of Mississippi’s 1890 postwar constitution. Before the enactment of the constitution, 67% of eligible Black Mississippians were registered to vote. Two years after enactment, that number plummeted to 6%.

That unfairness exists today and is evidenced by the fact that Black Mississippians have been disenfranchised at twice the rate of white voting-age residents. Mississippians can permanently lose their right to vote in any election for minor offenses, including stealing AirPods Pro earbuds worth $250 or writing one bad check for $100. Nearly 50,000 people were banned from voting for life because of a disqualifying offense between 1994 and 2017.

Only two other states impose a lifetime voting ban on all individuals convicted of certain offenses. However, a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Mississippi Legislature can pass a law to automatically restore the right to suffrage to any person disqualified by reason of crime who has served their time. And it’s high time for legislators to correct the injustices of the past and restore the right to vote to Mississippians who have served their time.

Other states have taken a variety of approaches when reversing their unforgiving voting bans. Mississippi could use any of these methods in combination. For example, Georgia restores the right to vote upon completion of the sentence, but Louisiana restores the right to vote before sentence completion if the person has not been incarcerated in the last five years.

The SPLC Action Fund, the lobbying arm of the Southern Poverty Law Center, advocated for changing the state’s racially motivated constitution. What’s more, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed Hopkins v. Hosemann in 2018 and submitted an amicus brief in Harness v. Watson in July. Both cases challenge the lifetime disenfranchisement provision.

The plaintiff in Hopkins, Dennis Hopkins, spoke at the recent hearings hosted by the House Judiciary B Committee. He explained that he committed a nonviolent offense more than two decades ago and has worked since his release to build a life he is proud of. He told committee members he is ashamed to explain to his nine children that he can’t vote because of a mistake made almost a half century ago.

He went on to say that his brother was killed by a hit-and-run driver five years ago, but he has forgiven the driver.

“I’m asking the state of Mississippi to forgive me,” he said.

The powerful plea seemed to resonate with the committee members, who thanked him for his testimony.

The SPLC Action Fund commends the Mississippi Legislature for its consideration of this issue and encourages our supporters to urge their state representatives and senators to reverse the lifetime disenfranchisement of their fellow Mississippians.

Megan Bennett is a policy associate for the SPLC Action Fund in Mississippi.

Photo above: A light turnout of voters appeared at this Jackson, Mississippi, precinct on Tuesday, Nov. 2, 2021. (AP/Rogelio V. Solis)