When Haley Barbour faced a barrage of criticism for pardoning dozens of people convicted of crimes after his term as governor ended in 2012, he cited his Christian beliefs as reasons for his actions.
“Christianity teaches us forgiveness and second chances. I believe in second chances and I try very hard to forgive,” said the former governor shortly after leaving office, dedicated to more than 200 acts of pardon.
During his eight years as governor, Barbour, like most other Mississippi politicians, did nothing to make the pardon more inclusive, creating a system that would have made it easier to restore voting rights to literally tens of thousands of people with felony convictions.
Most Mississippi politicians wear their Christianity on their sleeve. A basic tenet of the Christian faith is forgiveness and redemption. However, they do not see as part of this forgiveness and atonement the restoration of voting rights for people convicted of crimes.
Numerous studies have argued that restoring voting rights increases the likelihood that people with felony convictions will become productive members of society.
Dennis Hopkins, a 46-year-old Potts Camp resident who lost his right to vote as a teenager when he was convicted of grand larceny but is now an effective member of the community in rural north Mississippi, explained the importance of voting to lawmakers.
“Voting is everything to me,” Hopkins said in 2021 during a legislative hearing. “I tell my kids how important voting is… I’m ashamed to tell them I can’t vote.”
The old adage that the justice system moves slowly has never been truer than when it comes to Mississippi’s only system in the nation that prevents people convicted of certain crimes from regaining their voting rights.
On September 25, 2021 (more than 10 months ago), a full panel of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments on whether Mississippi’s disenfranchisement is unconstitutional. Seventeen justices heard the argument in a federal courthouse in New Orleans. It’s not an everyday occurrence for the entire panel to hear oral arguments, so the federal appeals court was expected to prioritize the matter.
But from that September day, crickets left the court.
At some point, the court will finally rule.
In Mississippi, people with felony convictions must petition the legislature to get a bill passed by a two-thirds majority of both houses to restore voting rights. Usually only a few (less than five) such bills succeed each session. There is also the option of a gubernatorial pardon to restore voting rights. But no governor has pardoned since Barbour in 2012.
For some of those who have lost their rights, the courts can cancel the file. In some cases, removal includes restoration of voting rights, and in others, it does not. It just depends on the preference of the judge granting the exception.
Legislation was passed during the 2022 session that clarifies that judicial disbarment will always include restoration of voting rights. Such modest legislation would be the biggest change to the state’s felony voting system since it was incorporated into the Mississippi Constitution in 1890. But it was vetoed by Governor Tate Reeves.
The U.S. Supreme Court, in past rulings, has given states wide discretion in disenfranchising those convicted of felonies. But it’s worth noting that Mississippi is among the vast minority of states (fewer than 10) that do not automatically restore voting rights at some point after a sentence is served.
The aforementioned 5th Circuit considers the argument that Mississippi’s voting ban is unconstitutional because it was included in the 1890 state constitution as one of many provisions designed to prevent African-Americans from voting. If it was done on racial grounds, it should be unconstitutional, the suit’s proponents argue. Mississippi Attorney General Lynn Fitch opposes the lawsuit.
In the 1890s, the Mississippi Supreme Court wrote that the disenfranchisement of people who had committed certain crimes was included in the Constitution to “prevent the exercise of the suffrage of the negro race” by targeting “offenses to which its weaker members are prone.” White political leaders at the time believed that the crimes lawmakers selected for the provision were more likely to be committed by African Americans. They also introduced poll taxes, literacy tests, segregated schools, intermarriage bans and other racist provisions into the Constitution.
Of course, they did all these steps in the name of Christianity.