State seeks to merge 2 voting rights suits
Mississippi has a racially biased system of removing voting rights from people convicted of certain crimes and a burdensome method of restoring those rights after ex-convicts serve their time, according to two federal lawsuits that seek change.
One lawsuit was filed in September by the Mississippi Center for Justice, and the other was filed in March by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Plaintiffs in both cases are former convicts who want to be able to vote, and the lawsuits make similar arguments.
The state’s top elections officer, Delbert Hosemann, is requesting that the lawsuits be combined and heard by one judge rather than two. The lawsuits “share common questions of fact and law, and consolidating these cases would avoid unnecessary costs and delay,” the state attorney general’s office wrote on behalf of Hosemann court papers filed April 5.
The lawsuit filed in September was assigned to U.S. District Judge Daniel P. Jordan III, who was nominated to the bench by President George W. Bush. The one filed in March was assigned to U.S. District Judge Carlton Reeves, who was nominated by President Barack Obama.
The Mississippi Constitution specifies 10 felonies that strip away voting rights upon conviction, including murder, forgery and bigamy. A state attorney general’s opinion later added 12 more disenfranchising crimes, including timber larceny and carjacking.
The original list of disenfranchising crimes was put into the 1890 Mississippi Constitution, and both lawsuits say the intent was to diminish African-Americans’ political power after Reconstruction.
“It’s important that we remove this vestige of white supremacy from the Mississippi Constitution and allow people to vote free of the legacy of racial discrimination,” attorney Robert McDuff said after he and several other attorneys filed the lawsuit in September.
To regain the right to vote, people convicted of the disenfranchising crimes must get permission from two-thirds of the Legislature and the governor. Only 14 people have managed this in the past five years.
During the 2018 session, legislators filed bills to restore voting rights to seven additional people. Five of the bills passed, and two failed.
Republican Gov. Phil Bryant, now in his seventh year in office, has been letting suffrage restoration bills become law without his signature. This year, he let four become law without signing them and vetoed the fifth. In a brief veto message Friday, he said restoring voting rights depends on the support of law enforcement “and the person’s ability to show responsibility and honesty after conviction.”
The lawsuit filed in March says Mississippi’s system is “harsh, punitive and unforgiving” and disproportionately hurts African-Americans. It seeks automatic or uncomplicated restoration of voting rights once a person completes a sentence for a disenfranchising crime, which 40 states already have. The aim of the September lawsuit is similar.
Between 1994 and 2017, about 47,000 people in Mississippi were convicted of disenfranchising crimes, and about 60 percent of them have completed their sentences but have not regained their voting rights, said Jonathan K. Youngwood, a New York-based attorney in the March lawsuit. Some are still serving time.
African-Americans make up about 38 percent of Mississippi’s population and 36.5 percent of the state’s registered voters. Youngwood said 59 percent to 60 percent of people convicted of disenfranchising crimes in the state are black.
One of the plaintiffs of the September lawsuit is Kamal Karriem, a former Columbus city councilman who pleaded guilty to embezzlement in 2005 after being charged with stealing a city cellphone. He is the brother of Democratic state Rep. Kabir Karriem of Columbus, who filed two of the bills this year to restore voting rights to former convicts.
“Once you’ve paid your debt to society, I believe you should be allowed to participate again,” Kamal Karriem said. “I don’t think it should be held against you for the rest of your life.”
Emily Wagster Pettus has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994. Follow her on Twitter at EWagsterPettus.