A lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Mississippi’s permanent ban on voting rights for people convicted of certain felonies is getting a second hearing at the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.
A three-judge panel of the 5th Circuit rejected the case in February. But recently, according to the Mississippi Today website, the full Court of Appeals panel, 17 judges in all, agreed to hear the case.
The Mississippi Center for Justice, which filed the lawsuit in 2017, equates the loss of voting rights for certain crimes to other more widely used strategies to keep Blacks and poor Whites from voting, such as poll taxes and literacy tests. A significant difference, of course, is that one sanction applies only to convicted criminals, while the other “requirements” applied to much wider classes of citizens.
The Mississippi Today story about the case noted that the state Supreme Court itself in the 1890s made plain the reason for including the felony prohibition 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.”
You can say one thing about the felony prohibition’s impact today: It has worked. According to The Sentencing Project, which supports prison alternatives and works to address racial disparities in the criminal justice system, 235,000 Mississippi residents have lost the right to vote because of felony convictions.
That figure seems very high. But if accurate, it equals 10.6% of the state’s voting-age population. It also includes 130,000 residents who make up 16% of the state’s Black population.
It’s hard to envision the 5th Circuit judges overruling the Mississippi Constitution, which may set up a U.S. Supreme Court hearing if the Center for Justice decides to pursue it. A less expensive solution should come from the Mississippi Legislature, which has only to ask itself a simple question about this issue: Is it fair?
The short answer is no. If felons are to lose the right to vote, then that penalty should apply to all felons in the state.
How ridiculous is it that someone convicted of perjury or bigamy loses the right to vote, while the same penalty does not extend to anyone convicted of the far more serious crimes of drug distribution or child molestation?
And for many years, the state has focused on encouraging ex-convicts to rebuild their lives and stay straight. How sincere are these efforts if many of these people, even after serving their sentence, are forbidden from full citizenship?
The Legislature should make the lawsuit moot by presenting for voter approval a revised measure on felons and voting. Nobody, not even the Center for Justice, wants to restore voting rights for the most serious offenses like murder, rape, child sex crimes and a few others. But the permanent loss of voting rights for lesser felonies should be eliminated.