Lawyers for six former Mississippi prisoners will try to convince a federal court that the state’s laws preventing some felons from regaining the right to vote are unfair and disproportionately hurt black people.
The six plaintiffs have a reasonable argument — not on racial grounds, since the state’s prison population is majority black — but on the grounds that the list of crimes that keep some former prisoners from voting are badly in need of an update.
Reporting on the lawsuit, filed this week by the Southern Poverty Law Center, The Associated Press noted that the state Constitution lists 10 crimes for which a conviction includes voting rights. Those convicted of some crimes on the list, such as murder, rape and arson, deserve to be denied the vote. Others convicted of less severe felony offenses, such as forgery, embezzlement or bigamy, may not.
A 2009 opinion from the attorney general’s office added 12 more offenses that cost a convict his vote. Most of these additional crimes — such as armed robbery, carjacking, extortion and felony shoplifting — are related to theft, which is one of the Constitution’s 10 disenfranchising crimes.
Any state has the right to declare that certain criminal acts disqualify a perpetrator from participating in an election. But what’s most interesting about Mississippi’s list of 22 voter disqualification crimes is the things that are not on it.
Manslaughter and negligent homicide are the most obvious exclusions.
Since the end result of any homicide is someone’s death, why is it that murderers — those who plan to kill someone and then do it — lose the right to vote, while people who kill someone in the heat of the moment; or who kill an innocent person in a highway accident, keep their voting rights?
Drug dealers are another oversight. With all the problems that drugs have caused in Mississippi, a strong case can be made that the people who profit from narcotics sales should be on any list of disenfranchised voters.
Ex-convicts whose crimes cost them the right to vote can regain it if two-thirds of legislators and the governor approve. But the convicts have to ask, and lawmakers have to act. The AP reported that only 14 former prisoners have completed this procedure in the past five years.
There’s a better way. A reasonable set of rules would prohibit anyone from voting while they are being held in a prison. Those on probation or parole for certain serious crimes could be denied the vote as well.
But in many cases, it is good policy to restore voting rights to felons who have completed their prison sentence and post-release requirements.
The AP says 40 states allow uncomplicated restoration of voting rights once a felon completes the sentence for a disenfranchising crime.
Mississippi should consider it, too.
There is no doubt that the former prisoners and their lawyers have a tough task ahead. It’s not easy to get part of a constitution overturned. Their main argument should be that these plaintiffs have paid their debt to society, and that it is wrong to keep punishing them.
Jack Ryan is the editor and publisher of the Enterprise-Journal in McComb.