Gov. Tate Reeves vetoed a bill intended to make it easier for some people who lost their voting rights as a result of a Jim Crow-era provision of the state’s 1890 Constitution to regain their right to vote.
The constitutional provision, originally written to keep Black Mississippians from voting, prohibits those convicted of certain felonies from being able to vote unless their suffrage rights are restored by a two-thirds vote of both chambers of the Legislature or by a gubernatorial pardon.
House Judiciary B Chair Nick Bain, a Republican from Corinth who drafted the language that was vetoed, said during the session many courts already are restoring voting rights to those whose crimes are expunged. He said he believes that was the original intent of the legislation, and the bill he offered during the 2022 session, simply “clarified” that all judges should be granting the rights to vote to those whose crimes are expunged.
But Reeves vetoed the “clarifying” language on Friday.
“Felony disenfranchisement is an animating principle of the social contract at the heart of every great republic dating back to the founding of ancient Greece and Rome,” the Republican Reeves wrote in his veto message, which was filed with the Legislature on Friday.
“In America, such laws date back to the colonies and the eventual founding of our Republic,” Reeves continued. “Since statehood, in one form or another, Mississippi law has recognized felony disenfranchisement.”
Mississippi is one of a handful of states — less than 10 — that places a lifetime ban on voting for those convicted of certain felonies unless through the action of the Legislature or the governor. Most states restore the right to vote at some point after a person has completed his or her sentence.
It is difficult and rare for a Mississippian to have his right to vote restored through the legislative process. Typically, fewer than five people are successful each year in navigating the Mississippi legislative maze to regain voting rights. The Legislature approved suffrage bills during the 2022 session to restore voting rights to just five people.
In the 1890s, the Mississippi Supreme Court said the disfranchisement of felons was placed in the Constitution “to obstruct the exercise of the franchise by the negro race” by targeting “the offenses to which its weaker members were prone.” The provision’s intent was the same as the poll tax, the literacy test and other Jim Crow-era provisions that sought to prevent African Americans from voting, according to a lawsuit filed challenging the constitutionality of the provision.
The crimes placed in the Constitution where conviction would cost a person the right to vote were bribery, theft, arson, obtaining money or goods under false pretense, perjury, forgery, embezzlement, bigamy and burglary. Those were crimes that the 1890 framers believed African Americans were more likely to commit.
In 1968, the crimes of murder and rape were added as disenfranchising crimes. But even today, a person could be convicted of writing a bad check and lose the right to vote, but be a major drug kingpin locked up in prison and still vote.
The Legislature has never allowed the public to vote on whether to allow an easier method to restore voting rights.
A 2018 analysis by Mississippi Today found that 61% of the Mississippians who have lost their rights to vote are African American, despite the fact that African Americans represent about 38% of the state’s total voting-age population.
The vetoed bill, Senate Bill 2536, also established a registry of those convicted of public corruption. It will be up to the Senate leadership to decide whether to try to overturn the gubernatorial veto during the 2023 session.
In the 2020 session, which was Reeves’ first as governor, he became the first governor since 2002 to have a veto overturned.
The felony disenfranchisement provision of the Mississippi Constitution is currently being challenged in federal court based on its “racist origins.” The state of Mississippi, led by Attorney General Lynn Fitch, is fighting to preserve the Jim Crow-era provision.
It is not clear how the Reeves veto will impact the litigation.
Bain, who was unavailable for comment, had said during the session he did not believe the language was controversial, but just an attempt to ensure all judges were treating those who had their records expunged the same in terms of the restoration of voting rights.
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