Justice

One in 10 Mississippians are disenfranchised by this Jim Crow-era law

A banner urging citizens to vote is displayed on the side of a street in Jackson Mississippi, Sunday, Oct. 4, 2020.

The road to the Voting Rights Act may have gone through Mississippi but, nearly sixty years later, Jim Crow-era laws still keep hundreds of thousands of people from voting in the Deep South.

Over 230,000 people in Mississippi are barred from the ballot because of a disenfranchisement law that applies to certain felonies. The law originated in the state’s 1890 Constitution – a document notoriously written as a backlash to civil rights advancements made during Reconstruction and codified Jim Crow segregation laws. The state often penalized nonviolent crimes in order to disenfranchise poor Black and white voters.

Voter restoration laws vary by state. In the most extreme states, Virginia and Kentucky, voters with certain felony convictions are disbarred for life. In the most open states, Maine and Vermont, any citizen can vote, even those currently incarcerated.

In other states like Michigan, Illinois, Utah and Maryland, any citizen that is not currently imprisoned can vote, including those who are currently paying off fines and fees. In states like Texas, North Carolina, Georgia, Missouri and Louisiana, voter rights are automatically restored upon the completion of sentence, including all requisite fines and fees.

In Mississippi, however, voting rights restoration requires either a full pardon by the governor or the passage of a bill all the way through the state legislature. First, a local legislator must agree to sponsor a bill on their behalf. Then, both chambers must vote to accept a petitioner’s re-enfranchisement bill by a two-thirds majority vote. Even then, the governor has the option to veto it. No one is required to provide reason for voting against a petition for voting rights restoration. In fact, the state isn’t required to provide the applicant with an update on their petition at any stage.

It’s common for most legislative sessions to end without any voting rights restored at all. During the 2022 session, a grand total of five applicants out of nearly two dozen had their voting rights reinstated and that’s, in part, because of the efforts of Mississippi Votes, a nonprofit committed to the expansion of voting rights in Mississippi.

Hannah Williams, a policy and research analyst with Mississippi Votes, joined Reckon to answer a few questions about the voting rights restoration process and the origins of the state’s felony disenfranchisement law.

The following has been edited for length and clarity.

Reckon: Let’s say that I am somebody who has been disenfranchised because of a felony. What would I need to do in order to get my voting rights restored in Mississippi?

Hannah Williams: Well, for someone who is seeking to have their voting rights restored in Mississippi, the first thing that you would need to do is fill out an application for having your rights restored. You can find this application at the capitol. It is a paper application, and it has to be turned in to your representative—or a representative—and they’ll figure out where it needs to go as long as it gets to the House side first.

And what we at Mississippi Votes have done is that we’ve digitized the form to try to make it a little bit easier for folks who don’t have access to that type of transportation or time to come to the capitol. But we’ve put everything on the form online that isn’t sensitive, and then when it gets closer to the session, we’ll call people and ask them for the sensitive pieces of information, like their Social Security number, and things like that.

We still hand write the form and send it to the capitol. After that, it’s really just a waiting game for folks who don’t have personal relationships inside of the legislature or know people in the legislature. The House Judiciary B Committee reviews the applications, and usually they vote on them in a block.

So usually they all get passed out of the House. It’s in the Senate, that things sometimes get held up. Or they don’t vote on them in a block out of the Senate. Or if they do vote in a block, nine times out of 10, they’re just not going to pass any of them.

But if they pull individuals out like they did this past session, there’s a chance for folks to move forward and to the next step which is being signed by the governor, going to the governor’s desk as a bill, all of this is as a bill. So, typically, what happens is it’ll go to the governor’s desk.

The governor has the option just like any other bill to sign it, veto it, or let the signing date expire, which will make it automatically law. And this past go around, he did not sign any of the bills and they just all became law due to the expiration date of when he was supposed to sign them.

But this process is very fast. Most folks don’t know when the deadline is because it’s not publicized. There are no written criteria online where you can find out if you even will make it past step one or have all the things that you need. So it’s really just... It’s a waiting game. You just have to wait.

Reckon: And this is a much harder process than getting your voting right restored in just about all other 49 states in the country, right? In most states you do not have to get an entire law passed in order to get an individual’s voting rights restored.

Williams: Yeah, a lot of states have moved towards automatic rights restoration, whether it’s as soon as you’re released from their Department of Corrections, or once you pay all your fines and fees. Some places may have a little waiting period, but there’s a guarantee that you will get your rights back.

Whereas in Mississippi, there’s no guarantee. And this is really our only path outside of a full pardon. Anytime we pardon anybody in Mississippi, it’s on CNN or MSNBC because that’s how often we don’t pardon people.

Reckon: Does it take a simple majority in the house in the Senate? Does it take a three-fourth majority? How many people have to vote in order to restore some of those voting rights?

Williams: It’s a two-thirds majority.

Reckon: If anyone in the House or the Senate, or even the governor votes against this or decides to veto it, they don’t have to give any reason to the applicant petitioning for their voting rights?

Williams: The applicants actually don’t get any notification throughout the entirety of the process. So they don’t get a phone call. They don’t get an email. Nobody checks up on them. They’re not told where they are in the process. It’s just literally... I guess you just attempt to go register and you find out if you can register or not but there are no updates.

Mississippi Votes is privileged because we work really closely with our folks that work in the Capitol. The person that we lean on heavily is Representative Summers. And she is very on point with everything. She lets me know everything that’s happening, if she needs more information, if there needs to be research done, where they are in the process, like everything. She lets us know everything upfront so that way we can have something to go back and update folks on or don’t have something to go back and update folks on. It just depends on how things turn out.

Reckon: How many people would you say are affected by this right now? How many people, if they lived in a state that had automatic voting rights restoration would get it overnight, as opposed to having to go through this process that many people might not even know about?

Williams: Well, there are a little over 230,000 people in the State of Mississippi. So that’s nearly 11% of Mississippi’s population. Which is a lot. Like 11% of the... That’s a lot. We barely have 3 million people here. That’s a lot of our population.

Reckon: That’s a lot of people.

Williams: It can change an election overnight.

Reckon: And this law goes back to even before the Jim Crow era. This is one of the early Mississippi Black Code Constitution provisions that carries through even in the 21st century. Tell me how this law became part of code in Mississippi and who it was likely targeted at the time.

Williams: I guess it starts a little bit before the 1890 Constitution. After the Civil War, during the Reconstruction era, the [former] Confederate states had to submit a constitution, amongst other things, to be welcomed back into the union. And so, before the 1890 constitution, there was an 1868 Constitution that was very voter-friendly for Black folks.

People were running for positions and winning and there was all this electoral and civic engagement happening from former slaves. And so, everything was off the chain. Everybody was happy except for the folks that were not happy.

So the 1890 Constitution comes around and basically puts a package together of felonies that would bar people from voting. And these felonies were targeted towards Black folks and poor white folks, and even some indigenous people who they thought could fit the bill.

So that list has grown to 23 crimes, but the initial crimes were really basic and were almost impossible for Black people to not commit. One of the big things back then was, “Okay, you’ve been released from slavery. You have to own property and you have to work if you want to not be entered in some type of indentured servitude program or whatever that’s monitored by the state.”

And a lot of folks ended up in sharecropping. We all know that. One of the biggest things that sharecroppers would do, or people who couldn’t get a job or didn’t have any property—because you had to have a job to have a property, had to have property to have a job, didn’t make sense at all. And what they would do... “Okay, you’ve been arrested. I’ll pay your fine.” — It may only be a fine. You’re in jail because you can’t afford to find this—”I got $25 for you but now you have to come work on my farm to work off your fine.”

And so now we’re in a contract negotiation type of situation. But if you quit, that’s considered false pretenses or some type of fraud or something like that. And now you’ve been convicted of a disenfranchising crime.

Reckon: And it kept people in, effectively, slavery for decades and generations after emancipation. And so, moving forward to today, what are the types of crimes that are keeping 11% of Mississippi from having access to the ballot? We’re not talking about mass murderers and things like that in most cases.

Williams: It’s actually quite peculiar because there are still some laws in the book like timber larceny. I’m a person that owns five acres in south Mississippi and it’s covered in trees because that’s what my grandparents decided that I was going to do. I was going to be the next timber princess in the family. I’ve never encountered anybody trying to steal any of my trees. They haven’t encountered anybody trying to steal any of my trees, so I don’t know. But timber larceny is still on the list.

But there are things like rape and statutory rape and murder, but there’s also stuff like carjacking and arson. And there’s a bunch of different burglary-type charges and fraud charges. And most of the people who are convicted of those crimes outside of the top two or three, which was the rape, statutory rape, and murder, a lot of the folks that have been convicted of those other crimes, they’re old cases. They’re maybe 20 or 30 or 40 years old. And these people have not been in Mississippi Department of Correction’s custody for a lot of that time.

Some of these folks don’t even serve jail time or go to prison. They pay a fine and they do whatever program they have to do, and they can get back to their normal lives. So it’s almost like getting caught shoplifting. You know what I’m saying? Teenagers do that all the time. And most of the time people can get that type of stuff thrown out or pay a fine and you get... You know what I’m saying?

Reckon: Well, and like you were saying, in many of these instances, if somebody’s committed burglary or carjacking or shoplifting, they have done their sentence. They have gone through the process and committed restitution and been reintegrated into normal society as much as it’s legally allowed in places like Mississippi. And yet, 10, 20, 30 years later, they still don’t have their voting rights. And that seems like it remains targeted just like it was in 1890.

Williams: Yeah, it does. A lot of Black people are definitely still affected. I think of that 11 percent, 62 percent of those people are Black folks.

It’s an overwhelming majority of who’s getting hemmed up by these types of crimes. And also the other half of that is the fact that there’s no education about this, so most folks have no idea.

And then also the myth that just because you have any felony conviction that you can’t vote. So we’ve also been working backwards on the other side, letting folks know that like, “You think you can’t vote. This little possession charge, that ain’t got nothing to do with [these disenfranchisement laws]. So you can fill out a voter registration form. You can participate in the next election.” It’s like it’s two different narratives being played out at the same time.

Reckon: And how often does the Mississippi Legislature meet? One session a year?

Williams: Yeah, we only have one session a year unless the governor calls a special session.

Reckon: And how long is that session?

Williams: In a regular year, I think it’s about 90 days. But in an election year, I think it may be 120.

Reckon: Okay. And so, basically, there’s a 90-day or 120-day window every year where somebody can apply to get their voting rights restored. You said it’s some 200,000 people. How many people typically are able to get their voting rights restored in a given term?

Williams: Zero.

Reckon: Zero? Okay.

Williams: Zero. This past session, we had something astronomical happen where we had five people total to get their rights restored. But again, it never happens. It never happens.

Reckon: And I mean, it’s worth noting, that Mississippi is a Republican super majority legislature. And like you said, 60-something percent of the people who are disenfranchised are African Americans. And that doesn’t mean that they would overwhelming, or that they would solely vote Democrat. But demographic trends in the South, typically, African American voters vote Democrat. So there’s a political incentive for Republican legislature to block them from getting their voting rights.

Williams: It would seem that it’s targeted a little bit or strategic. It would seem that way. Yeah.

Reckon: What else is Mississippi Votes working to target voter rights restoration on a bigger level, what types of things are y’all doing?

Williams: Well, one thing that we have done, or one thing that we are doing rather is that we’re escalating the narrative of the situation because there are a lot of folks in a lot of states that have no idea that this is an issue for us. Or that half of our voting regulations are still very much so deeply rooted in Jim Crow-era law.. So the more we shed light on this story, and now we have so many people asking the administration here in Mississippi, what is happening, that we are hoping that they’ll try to do something.

This past session Representative Bain, who’s the chair of the Judiciary B Committee introduced some legislation and had a hearing over the summer about trying to meet somewhere in the middle with the rights restoration stuff. Ultimately, his bill did end up getting to the governor’s desk but it died because our governor said that it don’t really matter what you put in front of me, if it’s about rights restoration, he’s not signing it.

Another thing that we are doing is that we are trying to get as many people to apply in mass numbers as possible. So that we can really show our legislature it’s not just 25 people or 50 people or the same 10 people that apply every year. It’s hundreds of people that want to be involved in their communities electorally. Or [people who just] want some type of clarity even. Maybe they’re not just pushing for you to present a bill or fix something right now. But maybe they just want clarity on what the process is so that we can know if they’re even wasting their time filling this application out. Or if there’s more things that they need to do, people they need to call, and money they need to pay to make sure that we’re in the green to even fill out this application. So that’s another thing that we’ve been pushing for.

Hannah Williams: And then, we’ve also coupled our rights restoration issue with the fact that we need our ballot initiative process back. At this point, we feel as though trying to move some type of legislation through the legislature is not impossible, but it is very hard, and some of us want change in our lifetime.

We’ve done some exit polling around some previous elections. We had a special election, I believe ‚last year. And through our students, we’ve also distributed this survey on all 17 campuses across the state. And it has turned out that the people of Mississippi would like some clarity around the rights restoration issue and want to know why we don’t have an automatic rights restoration type of situation set up.

So we are very confident that if we could put something like this on the ballot, that it would stand a chance. But we ain’t got a ballot to put it on. That’s kind of hindering us. But we’re coupling a lot of our moving pieces organizationally with the fact that we must have some type of resolution to this ballot initiative process because it’s hemming up a lot of people. Not just progressive thinkers, but conservative folks have agendas that they also want to move on the ballot. And so it’s hurting everybody.

Reckon: Yeah. Well, one in 10 Mississippians denied their right to vote because of this. If somebody who’s reading this suspects that their voting rights have been denied or that they know somebody whose voting rights have been denied, where should they go to learn more about this process and to fill out a ballot application?

Williams: We have some information on our website at msvotes.org. Our application can be found there. Our legislative report can be found there. That has a lot of information about what happened this year around rights restoration in the legislature.

And we also have a report that we teamed up with One Voice and Advancement Project that came out a few years ago, that kind of centers voices of impacted persons around why having their voting rights back is important. So those are options if folks just want to read up some. The application is also available online on our website. And I’m always available for emails. People can reach out to me directly at hannah@msvotes.org.

John Hammontree | jhammontree@reckonsouth.com

I write Opinion & Commentary. Memphis-born, Birmingham-raised, world traveler who is finally home again.

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