In Louisiana, a federal appeals court ruled out on Friday that the state of Mississippi is no longer able to ban the right to vote from formerly incarcerated people that have completed their sentences.
With the decision passing in a 2-1 ruling, the Jim Crow era policy had violated the First and 14th Amendments, which both premise the rights of equal protection and freedom of speech.
The lawsuit that began in 2018 was brought on by the Southern Poverty Law Center in representation of plaintiffs who could not vote due to their felony convictions. This felony disenfranchisement law had denied the right to vote for residents in Mississippi more than any other state in the country.
According to the Guardian, “The policy blocked more than 10 percent of the adult population from voting if they had ever been convicted of one of 22 crimes, including murder, rape, bribery, theft, and arson. The vast majority – more than 90 percent – of those people are no longer in prison.”
The Guardian also explains that, “Mississippi's felony disenfranchisement policy dates back to the state's 1890 constitution, written during Reconstruction when the white political leadership intentionally tried to suppress Black political power by selecting crimes that Black people were more likely to commit to be crimes that are punishable with lifetime disenfranchisement. The law remained largely unchanged, other than the addition of two disenfranchising crimes in 1968 and removal of one in 1950.”
58 percent of the nearly 29,000 ex-offenders that were revoked of their voting rights from 1994-2017 were Black.
The judges noted that 35 states and the District of Columbia do not have laws similar to the one in Mississippi. Some of those states overturned similar bans, but Mississippi remained an outlier “bucking a clear and consistent trend in our Nation against permanent disenfranchisement,” the ruling states.
According to NBC News, “In a dissenting opinion, Republican U.S. Circuit Judge Edith Jones, a Reagan appointee, said that a decision by the 1974 Supreme Court established that removing the right to vote from prisoners was not a violation of the equal protection clause in the 4th Amendment.”
This ruling was in great contrast with the impact Section 241 has made since 1890.
35 states including the District of Colombia currently have laws that prohibit permanent disenfranchisement for committing crimes, even felonies. 12 states still have policies that allow disenfranchisement for life depending on the person's case.
“By severing former offenders from the body politic forever, Section 241 ensures that they will never be fully rehabilitated, continues to punish them beyond the term their culpability requires and serves no protective function to society.” Section 241 was established in reaction to Black suffrage during the Reconstruction Era when state officials moved to create a new state Constitution, the ruling states.
Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson wrote a dissent, joined by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in which she argued that the list of disenfranchising crimes was “adopted for an illicit discriminatory purpose”.
Hope is here that if the ruling still stands, thousands of people's voting rights can be regained in time for the November 7th general election next year for office positions such as state governor.
Groups supporting voting rights to felons include libertarian Cato Institute, the American Probation and Parole Association, the Sentencing Project, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Mississippi branch of the NAACP.