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Senate committee leader kills felony suffrage bill without vote 

Senate Constitution Chairwoman Angela Burks Hill killed this year’s substantive effort to restore voting rights to people convicted of nonviolent felonies by deciding not to hold a committee meeting before a Tuesday night deadline.

Hill, R-Picayune, did not conduct a single committee meeting over the last two weeks to consider any House bills that the lieutenant governor’s office referred to her committee for consideration. The Pearl River County lawmaker wouldn’t substantively comment on why she declined to advance any bills. 

“The constitution speaks for itself,” Hill said. 

The drafters of Mississippi’s 1890 Constitution, who first enacted the provision that strips voting rights away from certain convicted felons for life, did speak loudly at the time when they wrote the document that still governs the Magnolia State today. 

“There is no use to equivocate or lie about the matter … Mississippi’s constitutional convention of 1890 was held for no other purpose than to eliminate the n—– from politics,” Mississippi Gov. James K. Vardaman said at the time.

George Melchoir of Bolivar County, a delegate to the 1890 convention, also said at the time, … “It is the manifest intention of this convention to secure to the state of Mississippi white supremacy.” 

The original disenfranchising crimes chosen at the time thought to be more likely 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. A 2009 opinion from the Mississippi Attorney General’s Office expanded the list of disenfranchising felonies to 22.

Mississippi is one of only a handful of states that does not automatically restore voting rights to people who complete their sentences.

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 wholly accurate because no state agency tracks people once they are struck from the voter rolls. Studies commissioned by civil rights organizations in 2018 estimated between 44,000 and 50,000 Mississippians were disenfranchised.

The House overwhelmingly passed legislation last month that created an automatic process for people previously convicted of some nonviolent felony offenses to have their voting rights restored. 

A bipartisan pair of House members told Mississippi Today on Tuesday afternoon they were disheartened to hear that Hill declined to advance their measure in committee, given that a large majority of Republicans and Democrats supported the measure.

“I think we were taking a step in the right direction to get someone who has paid their debt to society and remained on the straight and narrow for five years to get their right to vote back,” Republican Rep. Fred Shanks of Brandon said. 

Rep. Kabir Karriem, D-Columbus, has filed legislation for years to create a pathway for people convicted of nonviolent felony offenses to regain their voting rights. Even though Hill won’t consider the legislation this year, Karriem said he intends to continue advocating for suffrage restoration.

“It seems like the Senate kills good legislation and passes bad legislation, so I’m not surprised,” Karriem said. “But we have to find a way to give people their rights back.” 

Even though the 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. 

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.

Hill’s decision to kill the bill marks the latest example in a litany of efforts to reform Mississippi’s felony suffrage process that have fizzled. 

Former House Judiciary B Chairman Nick Bain, a Republican from Corinth, led a proposal through the Legislature in 2022 that sought to clarify that people who have had a disenfranchising felony expunged from their criminal record would regain their voting rights. Republican Gov. Tate Reeves vetoed Bain’s proposal, and the Legislature did not override the veto.

The last time the Legislature substantively addressed felony suffrage was when the House overwhelmingly passed legislation in 2008 to restore voting rights to all Mississippians convicted of felonies, except for those convicted of murder or rape.

The 2008 legislation later died in the Senate, where Phil Bryant — who would later become governor and not pardon a single Mississippian convicted of any crime — presided as lieutenant governor.

The last time the Legislature successfully passed a bill that restored suffrage to a class of people was in the 1940s when then-Rep. William Winter of Grenada, who would later become governor, shepherded a measure through the Capitol that restored suffrage to all World War I and World War II veterans convicted of felonies. 

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