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‘If you can’t vote, you’re nobody:’ Lawmakers hear from rehabilitated felons who still can’t exercise right

Kenneth Almons has not received so much as a speeding ticket since he was released from the Mississippi State Penitentiary nearly three decades ago, but a punitive state policy still forces him to carry a sense of shame each day.

At 51, he’s run his own business, currently works for the city of Jackson, has raised three children and has, by most standards, been a picture-perfect example for what state officials would consider being rehabilitated and re-entering society. 

But because he was convicted of armed robbery and aggravated assault at 17 years old, he still cannot cast a vote in a Mississippi election. 

“We all make mistakes,” Almons told a group of state lawmakers on Wednesday. “Some are just greater than others.” 

Almons is one of thousands of Mississippians who have lost their right to vote for life because of a Jim Crow-era provision in the state constitution that imposes a permanent voting ban on people who have been convicted of certain felony offenses. 

The white supremacist drafters of Mississippi’s 1890 Constitution first established a list of disenfranchising crimes they believed at the time were more likely to be committed by Black people. 

Under the Mississippi Constitution, people convicted of any of 10 felonies — including perjury, arson and bigamy — lose their voting rights for life. Opinions from the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office since expanded the list of disenfranchising felonies to 23, including armed robbery.

About 55,000 names are on the Secretary of State’s voter disenfranchisement list as of March 19. The list, provided to Mississippi Today through a public records request, goes back to 1992 for felony convictions in state court. 

Lawmakers who attended the hearing asked Almons, who served five years in state prison, what it would mean if the state restored his voting rights.  

“It would mean I’m no longer a nobody,” Almons responded. “And if you can’t vote, you’re nobody. And in the public’s eye, I’m a nobody.” 

The GOP-majority House overwhelmingly passed legislation earlier this session along bipartisan lines that would have automatically restored voting rights to people who served their sentences for nonviolent felonies. But Senate Constitution Chairman Angela Burks Hill, a Republican from Picayune, killed the measure by not bringing it up for a vote in committee. 

The House measure likely would not have restored Almons’ suffrage because armed robbery is considered a violent crime, but it would have created a pathway for thousands of other Mississippians to regain their voting rights. 

Democratic Rep. Kabir Karriem of Columbus criticized Hill’s decision to kill the House measure but said her inaction should galvanize lawmakers and other advocates to double down on their efforts to advance suffrage legislation.  

“Restoring voting rights is not merely a political matter,” Karriem said. “It is a fundamental human rights issue. The right to vote is the cornerstone of our democracy.” 

Hill did not respond to a request for comment, but she previously told Mississippi Today she decided not to take the felony suffrage measure up because the “Constitution speaks for itself.” 

Though the House’s major suffrage bill is dead, lawmakers can still introduce individual bills to restore voting rights on behalf of citizens, but the process is burdensome. It requires two-thirds of lawmakers in both legislative chambers to vote in favor of restoring suffrage in individual cases. 

“We have a process in the Legislature that helps to restore individuals’ voting rights, but it is a terrible process,” Democratic Rep. Zakiya Summers of Jackson said. “And it’s a cumbersome process. And there really is no easy way to navigate it.” 

The Legislature last year did not pass any suffrage restoration bills. A person can also seek a gubernatorial pardon, though no executive pardon has been handed down since Gov. Haley Barbour’s final days in office in 2011.

Lawmakers in both chambers of the Capitol have filed around 50 individual suffrage bills so far this session. The speaker of the House and the lieutenant governor have referred those bills to the respective Judiciary B committees for consideration. 

Neither committee is currently scheduled to conduct a meeting on the suffrage bills, but lawmakers can consider those measures until the last remaining days of the 2024 session.

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