MISSISSIPPI (WDAM) - Nearly 6 million Americans will not be able to vote in November because of felony convictions, and that includes nearly 220,000 Mississippians.
"Given that Mississippi has such a high poverty rate, and poverty is tied closely with crime, it may not be that surprising that Mississippi has a high number of disenfranchised felons," said Rep. Noah Sanford, R- District 90 and a member of the House Apportionment and Elections Committee.
According to a new data from The Sentencing Project, 9.63 percent of the 2,265,485 people of voting age in Mississippi is unable to vote because of a felony. Mississippi is one of only six states to have more than seven percent of their voting age population unable to cast a ballot, and only Florida and Kentucky have a higher percentage.
"Everybody deserves a second chance," said Erik Fleming, director of advocacy and policy for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Mississippi. "The whole concept of going to jail and doing your time is to basically repay society for what you did, come back into society and be productive, and the best way to be a productive citizen, other than getting gainful employment, is to be able to vote."
Sen, Joey Fillingane, R- District 41 and member of the Senate Elections Committee, said the law comes from the state's constitution.
"From a social sort of policy making standpoint, the question is, do you want your murderer down the street and the rapist down the street being able to vote?" Fillingane said. "Obviously, they've made some really poor decisions in the past in their own personal lives, do we really trust them to make good decisions on who to elect to public office? I think that's where the policymakers come at this from, and the simple answer is if you want to vote, don't commit a crime."
Sanford said, "We want as many people possible to vote who are making educated decisions, so I think when you commit some of these crimes, it calls into question your judgment."
Fleming said, "A lot of these young men and women are already out. They have already served their time, so in order for them to be full citizens again, they need to have their rights to vote restored."
Felons can have their voting rights restored post-release by lawmakers.
"They are suffrage bills," Fillingane said. "You contact our local legislator, and tell him or her that you've completed your sentence. You're off of parole and probation, and you would like to get you right to vote back. There's an actual bill that legislature will draft up and be considered by the judiciary committees and then by the full House and Senate. If it passes, then that person gets his or her rights to vote back, so it's not like you lose it forever. You lose it for that delineated period of time for which you're serving your sentence and then for whatever probation or parole that follows after that."
However, Fillingane and Fleming, who is a former state representative, agree it is not an easy process. The Sentencing Project data estimated Mississippi has restored voting rights to 335 people between 2000-2015.
"It's not easy, I'll be honest with you," Fillingane said. "I've gone through it. In my 18 years of legislative service, there have been a number of constituents that contact me and say, 'You know, I made a mistake. I've served my time. I paid my dues, and I would like to get my right to vote back.' You draft a bill, and, to be quite honest with you, it's not super politically popular to be carrying forward people that have been convicted of these somewhat heinous crimes in many instances. To go up in front of your fellow legislators and say 'hey, I know this lady or this guy, and they messed up. They want their right to vote back. Help me out, and vote with me on this.' It doesn't always happen, to be honest with you, but it happens more often than you would think."
Fleming said, "No it's not an easy process. As a matter of fact, during the nine years I was there, I managed to personally get three people their voting rights back, and a lot of people said that was a heck of an accomplishment."
Source: The Sentencing Project
Fillingane said it is important to know not every felony charge disqualifies someone from voting. The Mississippi Secretary of State lists the convictions that prevent a felon from voting on the Mississippi voter registration form. Drug charges, for example, allow felons to keep the right to vote.
"A lot of people are in the misconception that every felony disqualifies you from voting, and that is not at all the case," Fillingane said. "In fact, most felonies do not disqualify you from voting, so what I would say is we want more people voting, not fewer people voting. So if you have had a felony in your past, and you're not sure whether it is one that disqualifies you from voting or not, contact your local circuit clerk, and let him or her tell you 'this is what the statute says.' In many instances, you'll discover that was not a disqualifying felony in the first place, and you've always been able to vote. You just didn't know you were able to. Or if it happens to fall into that subset of categories, then certainly if you're interested in contacting your local legislator and asking him or her to draft you a suffrage bill, that's what we're here for."
Fleming added if someone is convicted of a disqualifying crime in another state, he or she is still eligible to vote in Mississippi. Federal crimes also have no impact on your right to vote in Mississippi.
"The key thing is we don't want people to commit crimes," Fleming said. "We don't want people to do things jeopardize their fellow citizens. But at the same time, if you are convicted, and you serve your time, that you should have your rights restored because that helps reduce recidivism. That helps reduce the element of crime in communities that people are given the opportunity to get a job, to be able to vote, to be able to live a normal life. Get out of the environment that they were in that created the atmosphere to go to jail in the first place. At this particular point, our fight is to make sure that people who have served their time get their rights restored immediately."
Fillingane said, "If you have finished your time of service to MDOC or to the local law enforcement entities, and you're ready to get back into society and contribute again, that's great. That's why we have suffrage bills available to them for that purpose."
Any change on the timeline for voting right restoration would have to come from the legislature.
"I believe the Legislature needs to have a conversation on modernizing our voting laws," said Toby Barker, R- District 102 and member of the House Apportionment and Elections Committee. "Many of the 22 disenfranchising crimes are nonviolent offenses. I believe it would be time well spent to explore a process where some offenders could pay their debt to society and then work toward having their voting rights restored."
Fleming said, "Whoever the secretary of state is during that period of time would have to really push the legislature to change that. There were a lot of efforts when I was there and since I've been gone to take away that stigma if you're a first-time offender."
Sanford said, "We may take a second look at some of the crimes and if we need to change those, but I think for the most part, your violent crimes and your crimes where your judgment is really in question, those will probably need to be kept the way they are."
Fleming said making sure as many people are able to vote as possible is always important, but said it is especially so in a contentious presidential election year like 2016.
"Any election – Mississippi is unique because just about every year is an election year – but in this critical election, where people are supposed to be engaged in the presidential process, and we know that it's going to be a close election from what we gather, every vote counts. People should be allowed to express their opinion."