Things are looking pretty grim for Mississippi citizens who want to exercise their right to vote. Recently, Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann advocated a plan that would have scrapped all existing voter registrations and required everyone to reregister. Then came news that approximately 11,000 registered voters were illegally purged from the voting rolls just one week before tomorrow’s primary.
But, that’s not all. Secretary Hosemann is concerned that the Mississippi Constitution does not go far enough in disenfranchising people with past criminal convictions. Currently, state law lists ten kinds of crimes that will result in a person losing their voting rights. The remedy he supports, House Bill 969, disenfranchises all persons convicted of ANY felony until two years after the person fully completes all terms of the sentence and satisfies other conditions.
It is estimated that right now, more than 146,000 Mississippians are disenfranchised – more than 92,000 of them are African Americans. About 121,000 of those people are not incarcerated and are living, working and paying taxes in their communities. During a time when the rest of the country is excited about how many people are participating in our electoral process, the chief elections officer of Mississippi is supporting a proposal that will make even more people ineligible to vote.
Not only is this bad public policy, it is inconsistent with the existing trend of expanding franchise opportunities for persons with criminal convictions. Indeed, even in Kentucky – one of only two states that permanently disenfranchises everyone with a felony conviction unless the governor grants an individual clemency application – Governor Steve Beshear announced that he is removing some barriers in the application process to restore voting rights to convicted felons. In just over ten years, sixteen states have reformed their policies to bring more people with past felony convictions back into the democratic process.
Secretary Hosemann explains his support for expanding the list of disenfranchising crimes with a statement that reveals how out of touch this kind of proposal is: “All of the nine states fully covered by the 1965 Voting Rights Act disenfranchise felons or suspend their right to vote upon conviction.” To be “fully covered” by the Voting Rights Act means that the state’s voting practices history is so discriminatory that the entire state is still required by law to obtain permission from the Department of Justice or a court before certain election changes are allowed to be made. Mississippi is one of those covered states. With that group being the benchmark, the progress we can expect out of Mississippi is not encouraging.