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Legislative panels will consider restoring some Mississippians’ voting rights

The two legislative committee leaders responsible for criminal justice measures say they will move bills forward to restore suffrage for individuals, raising the prospect that some Mississippians will have their voting rights restored. 

House and Senate Judiciary B Chairmen Kevin Horan and Joey Fillingane announced Friday that they will have hearings on Monday to consider the suffrage bills. 

The House earlier in the session passed a substantial restoration bill that would have automatically restored suffrage to people convicted of nonviolent felony offenses, but Senate Constitution Chairwoman Angela Burks Hill killed it without bringing it up for debate.

Lawmakers, however, can still consider individual bills to restore suffrage to people who have been convicted of disenfranchising felony offenses, though only a small number of those bills typically survive the legislation process.

Horan, a Republican from Grenada, said the House will not restore suffrage to people convicted of violent offenses or those previously convicted of embezzling public money. Additionally, Horan said people must have completed the terms of their sentence and not have been convicted of another felony offense for at least five years to be considered. 

Fillingane, a Republican from Sumrall, said the Senate also will likely only restore voting rights to people previously convicted of nonviolent felony offenses – not violent crimes such as murder or rape. 

The Lamar County lawmaker also said the amount of time after someone has completed their sentencing terms is not a major factor in his decision to advance a suffrage bill out of committee or not. 

“The further out the better, but the time since completing the sentence doesn’t really matter,” Fillingane said. 

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 have since expanded the list of disenfranchising felonies to 23.

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

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. 

The state constitution gives lawmakers the power to restore suffrage to 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 on Wednesday. “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, but a willingness from both of the relevant committee chairs to push some of the bills forward could mean lawmakers will approve some bills this year.

Lawmakers have until the final days of the session to vote on suffrage bills, and legislators are coming to the end of their regular session, but it’s unclear when they will adjourn. 

Legislators still have major items they can consider, Medicaid expansion legislation, addressing the public retirement system and rewriting the public K-12 funding formula. 

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