Attorney Rob McDuff, who filed suit Thursday in Jackson, estimates that more than 50,000 Mississippians have been disqualified from voting since 1994 due to these convictions. About 60 percent are African-American, in a state whose population is 37 percent black. The suit describes the disenfranchising crimes as “an integral part of the overall effort to prevent African-Americans in Mississippi from voting.”
“Once you’ve paid your debt to society, I believe you should be allowed to participate again,” said plaintiff Kamal Karriem, a 58-year-old former Columbus city councilman who pleaded guilty to embezzlement in 2005 after being charged with stealing a city cellphone. ”I don’t think it should be held against you for the rest of your life.”
The initial list of crimes justifying a lifetime voting ban in the 1890 Mississippi Constitution, the result of a process meant to take the vote away from black people, included embezzlement, forgery, bribery, burglary, theft, arson, perjury, bigamy and obtaining money or property through false pretense. Today, that last crime can involve writing a bad check for as little as $100.
The suit notes that the same constitution adopted restrictive poll taxes, literacy requirements and residency requirements to disenfranchise people. Most of those have been struck down, removed or weakened over the ensuing 125 years.
”It’s important that we remove this vestige of white supremacy from the Mississippi Constitution and allow people to vote free of the legacy of racial discrimination,” McDuff said.
Voters removed burglary from the list in 1950, and amended the constitution again in 1968 to add rape and murder. The lawsuit doesn’t challenge using those last two crimes to disqualify people from voting, only the earlier list.
Right now, only an act of the Legislature can restore someone’s voting rights. Last year, six such bills, each restoring the rights of a single individual, passed with the required two-thirds supermajority in both chambers. Karriem, whose brother is a Democratic House member, said he’s considered seeking such a bill, but calls the process “touch and go.”
Broader proposals to restore rights have died without serious consideration in recent years, and Republican Gov. Phil Bryant opposes any such change.
“There is a price to pay for violating the laws of the state of Mississippi, particularly a felony,” Bryant said this month. “And one of them is that you lose your right to vote unless it is restored by the Mississippi Legislature…. I wouldn’t want to change it.”
Bryant refuses to sign bills restoring the voting rights of individuals, although he lets them become law without his signature.
Mississippi is one of 10 states that permanently revoke voting rights for people convicted of some or all felonies, according to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University.
Besides Karriem, plaintiffs include Roy Harness, an Army veteran convicted of forgery in 1986 and now studying social work in Jackson after recovering from drug addiction; and Gabrielle Jones of Jackson, convicted of forgery in 2009 and receiving stolen property in 2013.
The Mississippi Center for Justice is supporting the suit with a $2 million grant over 10 years from Apple Inc. and the Emerson Collective, an organization led by Laurene Powell Jobs, the widow of late Apple CEO Steve Jobs.
The suit faces an immediate hurdle. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in 1998 rejected a lawsuit from a state prison inmate challenging the constitutionality of the list. Those judges said the original provision had racist intent, but found the two later amendments had removed the “discriminatory taint associated with the original version.”
McDuff, though, argues that the court was wrong on the facts, because voters in 1950 and 1968 didn’t have the chance to amend the whole text. He also argues that Mississippi was still dominated by racist politicians and voters back then.
”The outcome of this case is not governed by that court decision,” the new complaint states.