State’s system of restoring voting rights needs work

Published 8:02 pm Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Mississippi does not make it easy for felons to get their voting rights restored, and critics say that is by design.

A federal appeals court could make it easier. Six convicted felons are pushing to have their voting rights restored through a lawsuit. They have argued that the restrictions imposed in 1890 were designed to “permanently disenfranchise black voters,” The Associated Press reported.

After a district court judge in August ruled mostly — but not entirely — in the state’s favor, the six felons and the state both appealed to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, AP reported.

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The Mississippi Constitution strips people convicted of 10 specific felonies of the right to vote. Those crimes include murder, forgery and bigamy. The list was later expanded by the state’s attorney general to 22 crimes, including timber larceny and carjacking.

Those convicted of a crime can get their voting rights restored only by going through a process of getting individual bills passed just for them with two-thirds approval by the Legislature, or by getting a pardon from the governor.

A Lincoln County man recently had his voting rights restored after Rep. Becky Currie of Brookhaven filed a bill on his behalf.  Phillip L. Sterling was “disqualified as an elector” after being convicted of a felony in 2009, specifically embezzlement in Copiah County. He was sentenced to serve one year of house arrest and five years of probation.

Currie’s bill stated that Sterling has “since conducted himself as a law-abiding and honorable citizen in a good and lawful manner.” Gov. Phil Bryant signed the bill earlier this year and Sterling was once again able to vote.

Sterling’s path to voting again is uncommon. Most convicted felons will not have a bill written on their behalf, much less one that is approved by the Legislature and signed by the governor.

The six felons argue the lifetime voting ban is cruel and unusual punishment — a violation of the 8th Amendment. They also argue that the restoration process violates the constitution’s Equal Protection Clause because when it was adopted in 1890 it was intended to keep African Americans from voting and still disproportionately affects black people, AP reported.

It’s clear the current system of restoring voting rights is not an equitable one. Regardless of what the court decides, Mississippi can do better.