Editorial Roundup: Mississippi

Greenwood Commonwealth. March 5, 2024.

Editorial: House Weighs Fix To Felon Voting Ban

Mississippi’s lifetime ban on most — but not all — felons is being challenged in the courts and at the state Capitol.

This is something the Legislature can fix, and it just might this session.

Last week, the House Constitution Committee passed unanimously a compromise proposal that would relax the policy, dating back more than a century, that stripped the voting rights of those who are convicted of a list of felony offenses.

House Bill 1609 would automatically lift that ban for several nonviolent offenses five years after the offenders complete their sentence, provided there have not been any subsequent felony convictions in the meantime.

That proposal is expected to be voted on by the full House this week.

It would be better if the voting ban were lifted upon completion of the sentence, rather than having to wait five years, but still this is progress in a state that has been historically reluctant to restore voting rights to those convicted of felony crimes, regardless of the severity of the crime.

Proposals of this type have not gotten anywhere for the past decade or so. According to the Clarion Ledger’s reporting, 42 general suffrage bills for felons have been introduced in the previous three years, but none of them got out of committee.

In addition, when lawmakers have considered the requests of individual felons to get their voting rights restored, the lawmakers have been stingy about granting those requests: just seven out of 47 requests during that same three-year period, again according to the Clarion Ledger.

Legal challenges to the lifetime ban have met with some success. Last summer, a three-judge panel of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with plaintiffs that the ban violates the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment, but that decision is on hold as it awaits what is expected to be a more conservative interpretation by the full Court of Appeals.

Even if the federal judges decide that Mississippi’s current lifetime ban meets constitutional muster, that would not make it a good law, since the ban hinders rehabilitation by making it harder for those who have committed crimes to integrate back into society once they have done their time.

There are also some head-scratching inconsistencies between those felonies that are on the disenfranchising list and those that aren’t. For example, as the law now stands, those convicted of felony bad check writing get hit with a lifetime voting ban, but if those same individuals were instead convicted of being major drug dealers, they would not lose their voting rights at all, even while behind bars.

A lifetime ban on voting is certainly an appropriate punishment for some crimes, such as murder, rape and child molestation, because of the heinous nature of the offense. There are a few other crimes, such as voter fraud, where a lifetime ban is a logical consequence for the offense.

But for most crimes, especially nonviolent ones, it is unfair to ban the person forever from participating in the democratic process. The Legislature can correct this across the board rather than continuing with an inefficient, arbitrary system that restores voting rights only to a lucky few.