Major changes to the state’s voting laws could be on the way, with two major lawsuits pending in federal court. Beth Orlansky, advocacy director for the Mississippi Center for Justice, is involved in those cases. She recently spoke to Sun Senior Staff Writer Anthony Warren about those cases, as well as the center’s other work. Orlansky holds a bachelor’s degree from Stanford University and a juris doctorate from the University of Tennessee. She and her husband have three sons.
In one case, the National Democratic Redistricting Committee has filed suit against the state over concerns with its voting laws. In a nutshell, what are those concerns?
“The 1890 state constitution contained a lot of provisions that served to retard black people from having a vote or having influence in the state. Most of the provisions have been overturned – the poll tax, the literacy test, property ownership requirements – but two remain: the disenfranchisement of felons, which we are also looking into, and the section that mandates that anyone seeking statewide office has to get not only the majority of the vote, but the majority of the state House districts. In the event that someone doesn’t fulfill both, the race goes to the House of Representatives to determine the winner.”
What is the problem with this provision?
“Primarily, it flies in the face of the one person, one vote concept. If you get the most votes in the state, you should win. It shouldn’t matter where (those votes) come from geographically.”
Is Mississippi the only state with this provision?
“I think we are the only state with that particular provision.”
When was the case filed, who filed it and what groups have signed on in support of it?
“It was filed in the spring and the organization behind the lawsuit is the National Democratic Redistricting committee. Eric Holder, the former attorney general, is actually the founder. The group is represented by Perkins Coie, and we’re co-counsel. Plaintiffs also include African Americans in various parts of the state that are concerned about having their votes count.
“We’ve (the center for justice) has done a good number of things on voting rights. Rob McDuff, who works with us, is in charge of the Impact Litigation Project. He was approached by various organizations that were interested in attacking this constitutional provision.”
Does this provision affect every statewide office, or just the governor?
“Every statewide office. It has come into play once before, in 1999, when Ronnie Musgrove and Mike Parker, each got half the House districts, but Musgrove got the most votes. The race went to the House and they seated Musgrove. At that time, the party that got the most votes was seated. I don’t know what would happen if the person who gets the most votes, but not the most districts, is in a different political party than the majority in the House.”
Do you think this provision could come into play during the 2019 gubernatorial race?
“It definitely could. For the first time in a long time, we have strong candidates from both parties in at least one race and have contested races all down the ticket. If Democratic candidates get the most votes, but not the most districts, the Republican House may very well not seat him or her.”
Do you actually think that would happen?
“It is their (the House’s) prerogative to do that. I heard in an interview with (former Gov. Ronnie) Musgrove that was certain the House would vote for whoever got the most votes regardless of party, and he may be right. But we have a supermajority of Republicans in the House and it would be in the realm of possibility that they would give it to the Republican regardless.”
Would that person be able to govern, coming into office under such dubious conditions?
“What we’re talking about in this instance would be a Republican candidate working with a Republican supermajority in the legislature. We don’t know what the legislature is going to look like, but it’s not likely going to be Democratic. If they’re both from the same party, they will be able to do whatever they want to.”
Is there a way to repeal the law, rather than just getting an injunction?
“It is a constitutional provision, so it can only be repealed through amendment. The legislature could put something on the ballot next year to get rid of the provision. Then, the citizens would have to vote on it.”
Let’s switch gears and talk about something else you mentioned, the disenfranchisement of felons. What is the center doing to address that?
“We have another lawsuit that challenges the provision in the constitution that listed nine or 10 felonies that would preclude people from voting. Those felonies were chosen specifically because they would more likely be committed by black people. We have documentation from the time showing that’s why they were selected. The list of felonies has been expanded over the years to include 21 disenfranchising crimes.
“We have an expert analysis to show that the crimes listed are disproportionately committed by African Americans. It’s a violation of the 14th Amendment to preclude certain people from voting with felonies, while allowing other people with felonies to vote. This case was brought forward in the 1990s by prisoners. (Chief District Judge) Dan Jordan ruled against it on summary judgement, explaining that he was bound by another case decided by the Fifth Circuit. This case is on appeal to the Fifth Circuit, asking them to reconsider the previous decision.”
What felonies are included?
“The disenfranchising crimes in the constitution are bribery, theft, arson, obtaining money or goods under false pretense, perjury, forgery, embezzlement and bigamy. Burglary was on the original list but was removed in 1950 by constitutional amendment. Murder and rape were added by constitutional amendment in 1968. We are not challenging murder and rape, because they were not part of the original list.”
You mentioned evidence from the time that the crimes were selected specifically to disenfranchise African Americans. What is that evidence?
“There was a (state) supreme court case in 1896 that stated these crimes were more likely to be committed by African Americans.”
How many Mississippians are not allowed to vote as a result of committing these felonies?
“We estimate that at least 50,000 Mississippians have been disqualified from voting during the last 20 years as a result of convictions the crimes set forth in the 1890 list, and that approximately 60 percent of those are African American.”
What are some of the other initiatives the center for justice is involved in?
“We’re very involved in immigration work, after the ICE raids. We are coordinating legal representation for the 680 people who were taken. We have set up a bond fund, so we are giving bonds to people who can’t afford them. We’ve been able to hire some extra people to help us work on that.
“In the health area, we’re working to combat the stigma of HIV/AIDS and are working with various interest groups on that. There is a state law that criminalizes individuals with HIV and we’ve been trying to get that overturned for several years. We believe the main reason HIV is criminalized is because of the stigma associated with it.
“On the consumer side, we have set up a justice court navigator site to help people who are facing collection actions or eviction actions. These individuals are often representing themselves and going up against someone that is in court every day. We’re not representing them but are giving them information on what to expect once they’re in the court.
“Our other campaigns include our food security work; working with the Department of Human Services to amend notices for SNAP – the food-stamp program; we have a fair housing grant, where we do testing and bring complaints against people who discriminate in housing – this applies to those who deny leasing or renting houses based on race, gender, national origin or religion; we’re also working with the developers to assist in the transition of abandoned housing into positive developments for the community. The last thing is education. This is where we are trying to keep children in school by representing them in disciplinary hearings where they’re facing long-term suspension or expulsion.”
What is the law that criminalizes HIV/AIDS?
“It has two parts – the first says that it is a crime to knowingly expose someone to HIV, so if you have HIV and you have sex with someone and transmit it, you can be criminally charged. The other part is the dissemination of bodily fluids – saliva, blood, feces, etc. If you have HIV and you expose anyone to those bodily fluids it is a felony. It is a misdemeanor if you don’t have HIV.”
If you knowingly expose someone to HIV, shouldn’t that be a felony?
“It’s more nuanced than that. If you take your meds and you have no viral load, it is not transmittable. If you have the disease, it doesn’t always mean it’s transmittable.”
How long has the center been working to see this law repealed?
“Five or six years; we’re always hopeful we can get it out of committee.”
Okay, now I want to ask about the navigator site you mentioned. Tell me about it.
“It was set up in March 2019 and we ran it for six months. Our lawyer finished his fellowship and left, so it ended. But we’re about to start it back up again.”
If people want more information, what do they need to do?
“Contact Charles Lee, at the Center for Justice, (601) 352-2269.”