Now that Florida has adopted Amendment 4, an initiative to automatically restore the voting rights of people upon completion of most felony sentences, Mississippi will inherit the dubious distinction of being the state that disenfranchises the highest share of its residents.
Nearly 10 percent of Mississippi’s otherwise eligible residents were disenfranchised in 2016 because of a past felony conviction, according to a Sentencing Project report. The extent to which Mississippi elections are exclusionary was largely absent from coverage of the U.S. Senate runoff held this week. Corey Wiggins, the executive director of the Mississippi NAACP, told me that the state’s “overall culture” has been “aimed at limiting folks’ ability to vote,” and that this “tends to be baked in policy and how we govern.”
Mississippi permanently disenfranchises anyone convicted of one of 22 offenses, which range from perjury and theft to murder. To regain the right to vote even after they have completed their sentence, individuals need the governor to issue a pardon or the legislature to adopt legislation in the form of a suffrage bill that enfranchises them individually. Only 335 people regained their right to vote between 2000 and 2015, according to the Sentencing Project. That’s a tiny fraction of the nearly 220,000 Mississippians who were disenfranchised in 2016.
Mississippi’s disenfranchisement rules date back to its 1890 Constitution, whose drafters were looking to exclude African Americans from political life. Paired with the vast disparities in the state’s law enforcement practices, these rules have strengthened the political power of white Mississippians. Sixteen percent of Black adults were disenfranchised as of 2016, compared with 6 percent of the rest of the population. Wiggins links felony disenfranchisement to other devices like poll taxes that “aimed to decrease the power of Black Mississippians.” Mississippi has historically “been intentional about limiting the power of voting of African Americans,” he said.
David Blount, the Democratic vice chairperson of the state Senate’s Elections Committee, told me that he would push for automatically restoring the rights of people who complete a felony sentence. “The Florida vote [on Amendment 4] shows that there is strong bipartisan support” around that idea, he said. “I think people recognize that it’s a fair thing to do.” He told me that he and other lawmakers were currently reviewing possible constitutional or statutory changes that would enable automatic rights restoration. Wiggins is advocating such a change as well. “If someone has completed their time and they’ve completed their debt to society, we should be ensuring that these folks can fully participate as citizens and exercise their voice,” Wiggins said, adding that Florida’s referendum “shows where we are as a nation in trying to push back against policies that limit voter participation.”
Republicans control the Mississippi legislature and governorship. In 2017, the state House voted unanimously to create a task force to review disenfranchisement rules, which signaled some openness to reform among lawmakers. But the bill died in the state Senate and Governor Phil Bryant has said he opposes any changes.
I asked state Senator Kevin Blackwell, the Republican chairperson of the Senate Elections Committee, whether he would support automatic restoration. “Changes to our Constitution should be a decision left to the people of Mississippi,” he said via email. He did not respond to a follow-up about whether he would support a legislatively-initiated constitutional amendment that would put such a change on the ballot.
Amendments can also be placed on the ballot through a popular initiative process in Mississippi. Organizers must collect a number of signatures equivalent to twelve percent of the total number of votes cast in the last gubernatorial election, which is a difficult threshold. But the initiative would only need majority support once on the ballot (as opposed to the 60 percent supermajority Florida’s Amendment 4 had to clear) as long as enough voters answered the question. Blount said that the initiative process is something that should be looked at.
Mississippi’s disenfranchisement rules are also a barrier to the participation of people who have interacted with the criminal justice system even if they have not lost their right to vote. Confusion around disenfranchisement rules and lack of adequate communication on the part of public authorities is a problem nationwide as well as in Mississippi. Wiggins says that the burden of educating eligible people about their rights in Mississippi falls largely on local groups and organizers. “If we were serious about Mississippians having the right to vote,” he said, “then there is responsibility that falls on the state to make sure that returning citizens are informed about their rights.”