Mississippi report may urge lawmakers to reform suffrage laws

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By DeAnna Tisdale Johnson

Jackson Advocate Publisher

Disenfranchisement amongst individuals previously incarcerated is a long-standing and growing problem in Mississippi. Local Mississippi organizations One Voice and MS Votes have partnered with the Advancement Project to release an informative, data- and narrative-driven report that sheds light on Mississippi’s inequities surrounding the struggle for returning citizens to reenter into society and regain the right to vote.

“Our Voices, Our Votes: Felony Disenfranchisement and Reentry in Mississippi” is a report focused on identify-ing the key issues returning citizens face through riveting narratives from the people who experience these disparities. It creates a compelling appeal to those in leadership to revisit and reexamine the current laws so that they can be recrafted into new policies that would lower the barriers and close the gaps for returning citizens.

Suffrage Restoration & Reform in Mississippi

The report, released on Tuesday, March 9, 2021, provides data that indicates 11% of Mississippi’s population – 235,152 people – are disenfranchised. “Mississippi makes it extremely difficult for those individuals to reenter into society as eligible voters,” says MS State Representative Zakiya Summers at the One Voice/MS Votes press conference Tuesday. Before becoming a state legislator, Rep. Summers served as a Hinds County Election Commissioner for District 3.

While working as an election commissioner, she answered a call from a constituent who’d received a letter from her. That letter stated that his affidavit ballot from the election at that time was not valid and had been rejected because he was no longer a registered voter. “He had not had a problem before and therefore took the initiative to get down to the bottom of it,” Rep. Summer recounts.

She continues, “I could hear his concern and his desire to want to ensure that his voice was heard at the ballot box. After a little research, I asked him a very uncomfortable question. Was he a convicted felon? He explained to me that 20 years prior, he had been convicted of receiving stolen property. And he didn’t realize that he would be disenfranchised for it, but he remained adamant about getting his voting rights restored because it was important for his well-being. And it was equally important that he set an example for his children.”

Because of her extensive knowledge of the suffrage process, Rep. Summers was able to connect the gentleman to his state senator, Hillman Frazier, to draft a suffrage bill. That bill went through the matriculation process and was passed, allowing the returning citizen to reregister to vote. It became a full circle moment when he voted for Summers in her campaign to become a state legislator. And she won.

This is a success story, but many returning citizens are rejected when they attempt to obtain access to voting rights. From 2000 to 2015, only 335 of the 166,494 people who completed their sentence had their voting rights restored. “For more than a decade, there have basically been no reforms to our elections process that benefit everyday Mississippians,” Rep. Summers conveys. For the past few legislative sessions, the MS Democratic Caucus and the MS Legislative Black Caucus has attempted to pass legislation to improve the election process in Mississippi, including introducing legislation that would implement online voter registration, no excuse absentee voting, early voting, and expansion of precincts, to no avail or success.

The suffrage restoration process is even more complicated and cumbersome. According to the Mississippi Capitol Legal Services Department, individuals who were formerly incarcerated can apply for suffrage by filling out a paper application that must be picked up at the Capitol. The applicant must then have their respective MS legislator – representative or senator – to sign the application. The Legal Services Dept. will then review the application and discharge an affidavit from the MS Department of Corrections to ensure eligibility, making sure all fees, probation periods, and programs are completed.

The Legal Services Dept. sends the application to this Suffrage Subcommittee under the Judiciary Committee. At that point, they will approve or deny the application. The Chair of the Judiciary Committee selects the applications that are allowed to be voted on by the full committee. The application then moves to the House or Senate floor for a vote. This process happens once every legislative session. Flaws in this process include assuming that returning citizens know who their legislators are and can obtain access to their respective legislators. It also presumes that citizens all over the state of Mississippi have access to transportation to pick up the hard copy application from the State Capitol. Another shortcoming of this process is that many people don’t know about it and those who do may not know how to explain it to someone in need of help.

Right to Life for African Americans and Returning Citizens in Mississippi

The disenfranchisement of returning citizens is also an additional source of disparity amongst African Americans living in Mississippi. In 2021, there are 53,674 people incarcerated, on parole, or on probation in Mississippi. More than half of that number (56%) are Black. This comes on the heels of Mississippi having the 3rd largest incarceration rate in the country, with America having the largest incarceration rate in the world.

Blacks in Mississippi are disproportionately affected in the areas of voting rights, employment equity, economic security, access to adequate healthcare, and other paths to well-being. But for returning citizens, who were previously convicted of disenfranchising felonies, that number rises significantly.

There are 22 disenfranchising felony convictions that are built off of 150-year-old laws (Jim Crow) originally created to target African Americans. Those convictions consist of: arson, armed robbery, bigamy, bribery, embezzlement, extortion, felony bad check, felony shoplifting, forgery, larceny, murder, obtaining money or goods under false pretenses, perjury, rape, receiving stolen property, robbery, theft, timber larceny, unlawful taking of motor vehicle, statutory rape, carjacking, and larceny under lease or rental agreement.

Kimberly Biggs, founder of From Prison to Purpose Mississippi, was once imprisoned for writing bad checks in an effort to feed her children. This is a true story that is perpetuated time and again amongst those who are faced with real life struggles, trying to survive with the insurmountable challenges of working to provide a livable wage for their families. Some make one bad decision, usually non-violent, and are met with discriminating charges and sentences that further disadvantage them upon reentry into society.

“They don’t offer people of color the same kind of arraignments, sentencing, and options as others. No one told me about the first-offenders program, but they offered it to other people. There’s racial injustice. In rural areas, if you try to challenge it by talking to the judge or DA, then they get mad and try to come at you. But we have to fight against this. I’m calling the elected people. I’m going to make them figure things out,” Biggs argues.

For Biggs, there was a feeling that she was being punished twice for her crime as she faced difficult times when returning to society. “When I was released, I went through a hard time with my marriage. I lost custody of my children and lost my home. I didn’t have any support. Mississippi offered me nothing on reentry except homeless shelters that were already over capacity and in poor condition. It was so hard that I stopped speaking for eight months. It took over 15 months to find the mental health services that would work for me. It just took me a while to find the right resources and figure out what would help me get over the bridge and get me to the next level.”

Recommendations for Change

Though, at times, it may seem as if these systemic issues within our society are overwhelming, there are people – like Nsombi Lambright of One Voice and Arekia Bennett of Mississippi Votes – who are creating policy solutions to alleviate the strain and weight of these problems. Some of these policy recommendations include:

  • Limiting the harms of the criminal legal system to better support reentry from prison.
  • Modernizing the state’s voter registration and election administration to reduce barriers to voting. 
  • Restoring voting rights to everyone who has completed their prison term.

These previous two recommendations may not be too far from the future of our nation. The HR 1 For the People Act of 2021 is currently on the U.S. House floor. This act would revolutionize the way that voting works across the nation, especially for people of color and even more so for returning citizens. The bill would restore voting rights to millions of disenfranchised citizens who’ve completed their sentences. The bill would also make it easier to register to vote and stay on the rolls; each state would be required to allow citizens to vote by mail; it would seek to end gerrymandering by making it illegal to draw districts that favor a specific political party or race over another; and it will also protect the ballot box from cyber-attacks.

  • Establishing a clear process and inclusive criteria for approving suffrage applications in the Mississippi Legislature. The following amendments are a few of the suggestions the report believes could improve the current process:
    • Allowing applicants to submit a one-page letter in support of their restoration of suffrage which may include but is not limited to their status of employment, education, and rehabilitation. 
    • Allowing applications to be reviewed by Judiciary administrative staff using only the following criteria:
      • Verification of identity established by verification of driver’s license or photo ID and Social Security number. 
      • Verification of conviction(s) and completion of sentence/terms of conviction. Outstanding fines, restitution, supervision, or other court-imposed costs should not count against an applicant.

To read the full report, please visit https://advancementproject. org/wp-content/uploads/2021/03/MS-Reentry-Report24.pdf. To learn more about One Voice and Mississippi Votes, visit http://onevoicems.org/ and https://www.msvotes.org/. 

DeAnna enjoys reading and writing and experiencing city life with all its amenities with her fellow citizens. When she’s not uncovering the truth as it needs to be told, she visits museums and spends time with friends and family.