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Lawmakers consider restoring suffrage, gun rights to those convicted of some nonviolent crimes

For the first time in more than a decade, the House of Representatives will consider legislation to restore voting rights and Second Amendment rights to people convicted of some nonviolent felony offenses.  

The House Constitution Committee on Wednesday afternoon advanced House Bill 1609, a bipartisan proposal to automatically restore suffrage to people convicted of nonviolent disenfranchising felonies after they’ve completed the terms of their sentence.  No committee member voted against the legislation.

“I’m very excited about this bill,” Democratic Rep. Cheikh Taylor of Starkville said. “In my opinion, this is one of the greatest bipartisan bills we’ve passed since changing the state flag.” 

Under the Mississippi Constitution, people convicted of any of 10 types of felonies lose their voting rights for life. Various opinions from the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office expanded the list of disenfranchising felonies to 23. 

The House measure would allow people convicted of nonviolent offenses such as bad check writing, perjury, and bribery to obtain their suffrage if they have not been convicted of another felony for five years after completing their sentence and paying any outstanding fines. 

But people convicted of murder, arson, armed robbery, carjacking, embezzling more than $5,000, rape, statutory rape, and voter fraud would still lose their voting rights for life. 

Constitution Committee Chairman Price Wallace, R-Mendenhall, told Mississippi Today that while he has never been convicted of a felony, he tried to look at this issue by placing himself in the shoes of someone who has had their voting rights taken away for life because of a prior mistake they made.  

“They don’t have pride and citizenship anymore,” Wallace said. “They can’t go vote. They can’t voice their opinion. That’s why I feel that this is important.” 

About 37,900 names are on the Secretary of State’s voter disenfranchisement list as of Jan. 29. The list, provided to Mississippi Today through a public records request, goes back to 1992 for felony convictions in state court. 

That number, however, may not be fully accurate because no state agency tracks people once they are struck for the voter rolls. Studies commissioned by civil rights organizations in 2018 estimated between 44,000 and 50,000 Mississippians were disenfranchised.

For someone to have their suffrage restored, a lawmaker must introduce a bill on their behalf, and two-thirds of lawmakers in both legislative chambers must agree. 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.

READ MORE: Few options remain for Mississippians convicted of certain felonies to regain voting rights

The House proposal would not amend the Mississippi Constitution because the constitution already grants lawmakers the authority to restore suffrage to people who have been disenfranchised. 

Wallace said he intends to present the bill to the full House chamber next week. Because the plan essentially creates a process to restore suffrage to a group of people in perpetuity, two-thirds of House members, the Legislature’s highest bar to clear, must approve of the plan. 

If the proposal passes the 122-member House, it would head to the Senate for consideration, where its fate remains uncertain. 

The Senate Judiciary B Committee on Wednesday passed a separate proposal to restore the right to own a firearm to people convicted of nonviolent felony offenses after they’ve completed their prison sentence.

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