Lawsuits pending on Miss. felons’ voting

Published 4:01 pm Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Think convicted felons can’t vote in Mississippi? Maybe yes, and maybe no.

The courts — state or federal — may clear up the confusion.

The Mississippi Constitution lists 21 crimes that take away a convict’s right to vote: arson, armed robbery, bigamy, bribery, embezzlement, extortion, felony bad check, felony shoplifting, forgery, larceny, murder, obtaining money or goods under false pretense, perjury, rape, receiving stolen property, robbery, theft, timber larceny, unlawful taking of a motor vehicle, statutory rape and carjacking.

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The constitution initially listed 10 crimes that would strip voting rights. Eleven other crimes were added in 2004 based on a state attorney general’s opinion.

Other felonies not on the list, such as dealing drugs, don’t affect voting rights.

Lawmakers have introduced legislation to amend the constitution either to ban all felons from voting or to restore suffrage automatically for first felony conviction upon completion of sentence.

The bills have gone nowhere, but the debate continues.

Those who lose their vote have to be pardoned by the governor or go to the Legislature, where it takes a two-thirds majority to restore a person’s suffrage.

Rep. Greg Snowden, R-Meridian, is one of the more vocal legislators on the issue.

In a blog earlier this year in The Clarion-Ledger, Snowden said he supports disenfranchising every convicted felon, no matter the crime, while he or she remains a ward of the corrections system.

“However, I am in favor of restoring most felons’ right to vote within a reasonable period of time after they serve their sentence and have otherwise fully paid the societal debt they owe for the crime they committed,” Snowden wrote.

“This trade-off is reasonable, it makes sense, and I think it is politically doable. Most Democrats and most Republicans easily can get on the same page here,” he said.

Two lawsuits attempt to address the questions about felons’ voting.

One, pending in Hinds County Chancery Court since October 2006, challenges the state’s denial of voting rights to people convicted of felonies that include shoplifting, timber larceny and extortion, which were among those added in 2004.

Attorney General Jim Hood said his opinion was based on a 1998 ruling of the 5th U.S. Circuit of Appeals that approved the additional crimes for disenfranchisement.

The ACLU argues that Mississippi’s disenfranchisement provision is confusing.

The group contends the constitution allows felony convicts to participate in some federal elections, but they’re not allowed to register to vote and participate in state elections.

The ACLU’s first contention is scheduled to be argued Jan. 6 before a 5th Circuit panel in New Orleans.

In March, a federal judge in Jackson threw out the ACLU’s argument that convicted felons in Mississippi are being denied their constitutional right to vote in presidential elections. The ACLU appealed.

The attorney general’s office, which first argued the case belongs in state court, says the constitution and a companion statute can only be interpreted that “those convicted of a disenfranchising crime are precluded from voting in any election.”

Section 241 sets out who is qualified to vote. The attorney general’s office says its meaning is clear and makes no exception for federal elections.

The ACLU argues the state cannot prevent someone from registering to vote or voting in a federal election.