As Mississippi and the rest of the nation move closer to Election Day, people of all political persuasions are being urged to vote.
In this state, however, one in 10 adults cannot cast a ballot, even if they wanted to. That’s because they committed a crime that stripped them of their voting rights and kept those rights locked away even after they completed their sentence.
This week, Mississippi Today, the online news organization, reported that Mississippi has climbed to the top for states that deny felons the right to vote.
That distinction reflects in part Mississippi’s longstanding “tough on crime” mentality, which has manifested itself in many ways, such as a “truth-in-sentencing” law that was harsher than most anywhere else in the country and a related explosion in prison construction, both of which eventually became financially unsustainable.
But it also reflects a racial bias that was codified into law 130 years ago. Among many of the provisions of the 1890 state constitution designed to wrest back the post-Civil War political gains made by former slaves was the listing of an assortment of crimes that deprived a convicted offender the right to vote, in most cases permanently. Couple that with a trumped-up justice system and discriminatory voter registration laws, and it didn’t take long for Black voting strength to be all but eliminated by the early 20th century.
Despite the political gains that Blacks have made since the 1960s, still today there are remnants of a system set up to keep more Blacks than whites from voting. Since Black conviction rates are higher, so too are Black disenfranchisement rates. Sixteen percent of adult Black Mississippians cannot vote because of a criminal record, compared to about 6% of Blacks nationally.
Race aside, Mississippi is painfully slow about restoring the voting rights of anyone. Under current law, no matter how long it has been since the crime has occurred or the sentence completed, the only way that felons can have their voting rights restored is through an individualized act by the Legislature. Lawmakers are either stingy about granting these or felons are put off by having to go through the extraordinary effort to get their cause heard. Over the past 20 years, according to Mississippi Today’s story, the Legislature has averaged restoring voting rights to just seven felons a year. With a couple hundred thousand disenfranchised in this state, such a rate of forgiveness hardly makes a ripple.
There’s a better way, as a majority of states have found. They limit the disenfranchising crimes to only those of the most serious nature — in Mississippi, by contrast, writing three bad checks or getting caught shoplifting three times can cost offenders their voting rights — and they automatically restore felons’ voting rights at some point after they finish their sentence and are no longer under state custody or supervision.
Mississippi should do the same. With a rate of disenfranchisement that is almost five times higher than the national average, that tells you something is obviously unfair about the current system.
Once offenders have paid their debt to society, they need to be integrated back into it. Being able to vote is an important piece in that integration.