Our View: State needs a clearer path in restoring voting rights for felons

December 3, 2019 10:28:26 AM



Today in New Orleans, six Mississippians who are former felons will present a premise to a federal appeals court: It should not take an act of Congress to have your voting rights restored.


The implications of how the court rules could affect thousands of Mississippians whose right to vote has been taken away after conviction of certain felonies. While many other states have such restrictions, Mississippi's list of disenfranchising felonies is longer than most -- 22, which includes such things as timber theft and bigamy.


Two groups are representing the six Mississippians in their appeal of an August federal court ruling that denied most of their claims -- the Southern Poverty Law Center and Simpson Thacher and Bartlett law firm in New York City. The libertarian Cato Institute, the American Probation and Parole Association, the ACLU and the Mississippi branch of the NAACP have filed amicus briefs in the case.



The plaintiffs had hoped to remove most, if not all, disqualifying felonies. They pointed out, among other things, there are some crimes that don't result in the loss of voting rights that are just as bad as ones that do.


For example, writing a bad check means a lifetime loss of voting privileges while credit-card fraud does not.


While the court ruled in August that states have the right to disenfranchise felons, there are still ways to help restore rights in many cases.


Today, the focus turns on how the process of having voting rights restored works. In Mississippi, having voting rights restored requires approval by the Mississippi Legislature. The plaintiffs argue the method is difficult to pursue and potentially discriminatory.


Each year, no more than a few people succeed in having their voting rights restored, a clear indicator that the process is inefficient.


In other states, the process is managed at the local level through a simple court filing.


There are 180,000 Mississippians who have lost their right to vote.


If we believe as a society, that the criminal justice system is designed to rehabilitate rather than simply punish, the system through which voting rights can be restored should reflect that. Voting is an important part of being citizens. Too few exercise that right as it is. Making it harder for people to vote when it serves no useful purpose, is not something we should support.


We hope the federal appeals court sees it that way, too.