Not all ex-felons are barred from voting in Mississippi, but no one is telling them that

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Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today

Jed Blackerby stands outside of Stewpot Community Services as he talks about his views on Mississippi politics Thursday, October 25, 2018.

Jed Blackerby always understood, following his 2003 felony conviction, he had lost his right to vote.

Mississippi’s constitution permanently strips the voting rights from people convicted of a number of specific felonies — 22 in total, according to the attorney general’s office.

But Blackerby’s crime of aggravated assault does not appear on that list.

“No one gave any guidance,” Blackerby said after learning he may still have his voting rights. “A long time ago when convicted felons, point blank, were not allowed to vote, (government officials) never made it public until afterwards that (people with) certain types of convictions were allowed to vote. It had never been publicized.”

Blackerby has never visited the polls on Election Day, even though he considers himself engaged in politics and he has strong opinions about the country’s direction.

The attitude of criminal justice system administrators was simply, “You’re a convicted felon. You can’t do this. You can’t do that,” Blackerby added.

Misconceptions regarding the felony voting ban are so pervasive, lawmakers have actually introduced legislation to restore the voting rights of people who never lost them.

In 2016, then Sen. Sean Tindell, R-Gulfport, introduced a bill to remove voting restrictions for a Harrison County man named Steven Gunn, who had also been convicted of aggravated assault. Tindell, who now serves as a judge on the Mississippi Court of Appeals, did not respond to an interview request.

In 2017, Rep. Larry Byrd, R-Petal, introduced a bill to restore the suffrage of Seagie Pace, “who was disqualified as an elector as a result of his conviction for possession of a controlled substance with intent.”

Possession with intent to sell is not a crime for which a person can lose their right to vote. Both of these bills died in committee.

Attorney Paloma Wu of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which is suing the state over its felony voting ban, said when the law center took on the case, it received many calls from folks who believed they were affected and, in come cases, had worked unsuccessfully to restore their rights.

“They felt less than and kind of permanently isolated from the rest of their community because they couldn’t vote. Come to find out they could, and they were never disenfranchised in the first place,” Wu said.

Irrational list

The disenfranchising crimes are a mix of mostly theft, violent and financial crimes. They are: arson, armed robbery, bigamy, bribery, carjacking, embezzlement, extortion, felony bad check, felony shoplifting, forgery, larceny, murder, obtaining money or goods under false pretense, perjury, rape, receiving stolen property, robbery, statutory rape, theft, timber larceny, unlawful taking of motor vehicles and larceny under lease or rental agreement.

Ninety-three percent of people disenfranchised due to a conviction for one of these crimes live in the community rather than a correctional institution. They are either on probation or parole or have completed their sentences, according to a 2018 report by The Sentencing Project.

Since 1994, 128,865 Mississippians have been convicted crimes that did not strip them of their right to vote, according to a Mississippi Today analysis of Administrative Office of Courts records.

These include misdemeanors, but also felony crimes such as possession or sale of drugs, tax evasion, burglary, assault, sexual battery, kidnapping or touching a child for lustful purposes. Forty-three percent of all non-disenfranchising convictions in that time frame were for drug offenses.

Those who served time in state prisons for these crimes maintained their right to vote even while incarcerated, though it’s unclear how many exercise that right. In many other states, such as Illinois and Ohio, convicted felons cannot vote while in prison and only regain their rights after completing their sentences. In Mississippi, eligible inmate voters must request an absentee ballot from the county in which they lived before entering prison.

“We may have requests every election but cannot say how many or compare it to anything because (ballot requests) are not labeled or categorized,” Hinds County Circuit Clerk Zack Wallace said in an email.

Mississippi is among the states with the most restrictive voting bans in the country — unless you’re convicted of a non-disenfranchising crime.

Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today

Sen. Hob Bryan, D-Amory, speaks during a press conference during a special session of the Legislature at the Capitol in Jackson Thursday, August 23, 2018.

“That just shows how irrational the list is, that forging a check comes with harsher penalties than molesting a child,” said Senate Judiciary B Committee Chairman Hob Bryan, D-Amory, who convened a hearing on the issue last month. “There doesn’t seem to be any reason to defend what’s there.”

De facto disenfranchised

Nearly 10 percent of Mississippians have lost their right to vote due to a disenfranchising felony conviction, according to The Sentencing Project.

This does not account for the unknown population of people who may not be voting — who are “de facto disenfranchised” — because they don’t think they’re eligible, or who face intimidation due to their felony conviction.

In the last statewide election — the June party primaries for the U.S. Senate race — just 13 percent of registered voters showed up to the polls. When you consider the roughly 17 percent of voting-age Mississippians, or roughly 390,000 people, who are not registered, the overall Election Day participation rate drops another two percent.

Civil rights attorney Rob McDuff, who is also working on a lawsuit against the state over its felony voting ban, said he has a friend who for years believed his felony conviction barred him from voting.

It wasn’t until he asked McDuff, and the attorney told him his crime was not one of the disenfranchising crimes, that he discovered he had never lost his suffrage.

“I think there is a widespread perception that if your convicted of any felony in Mississippi that you are permanently disqualified from voting,” McDuff said. “But instead it’s only certain crimes chosen in 1890 because framers of the 1890 constitution believed they were committed largely by black people.”

Filed by the Mississippi Center for Justice, McDuff’s complaint characterizes the lifelong voting ban as one of the state’s “vestiges of white supremacy.” Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, the defendant in that suit, denied through court documents all claims in the complaint.

As it’s applied, the ban does lead to racial disparities. Roughly one-in-six black voting-age Mississippians have lost the right to vote, according to The Sentencing Project.

Racial disparity conspicuous among Mississippians banned from voting

Because juries are selected from the registered population, the felony voting ban could also lead to racial disparities in jury pools.

Andy Johnson, a public defender in Pearl River County, said his county, which is 85 percent white, might be assembling disproportionately white juries because felony convictions affect black populations more than white ones.

“(During the last jury selection), we saw two black men in an entire venire of 50 or 60 people,” he said. “I mean, Pearl River County might be white, but we’re not that damn white.”

Criminal defense attorney Merrida “Buddy” Coxwell said he has also consulted clients over the years who were convinced they had lost their right to vote, even though they hadn’t.

While not required under any Mississippi Bar Association rule, Coxwell tries to educate his clients about any collateral consequences as a result of their conviction, such as their right to vote, own a gun or maintain a professional license.

Voting in practice

Today, voting advocates are working to correct the misinformation.

Arekia Bennett, director of Mississippi Votes

Arekia Bennett, director of Mississippi Votes, said she’s met young men at voter drives who disengage when they realize what she’s doing, registering people to vote.

“I’m pretty sure I can’t vote,” Bennett recalled one man saying as he began to walk away from her table at the Jackson Medical Mall. In some cases, Bennett said, people like him have been accused or convicted of drug offenses, which are not included in the list of disenfranchising crimes.

Even after she informs them of the law, she’s found people apprehensive of offering their information for fear they might be accused of committing voter fraud. Registration forms require applicants to declare they’ve never been convicted of a disenfranchising crime, which can be confusing because the list uses vague terms for each crime, as opposed to the precise language from state statutes.

Getting that declaration wrong could be tantamount to perjury — a disenfranchising crime.

Sometimes, the location of the voting office itself can be intimidating. The Hinds County Courthouse, where residents register to vote, is connected to the county’s downtown jail. “They don’t want to come down here asking questions,” said Hinds County Election Commissioner Yvonne Horton.

County clerks confirm that a person is eligible to vote like this: They enter the registration application into the Statewide Election Management System, which contains conviction data. If the person applying has been convicted of a disenfranchising crime, the system alerts the clerk, who must then research the conviction and obtain the sentencing order.

In some cases, clerks must request, by fax, the information from a different county. After confirming the crime is disenfranchising, the clerk rejects the application.

Greene County Circuit Clerk Cecilia Bounds told Mississippi Today any disqualified voter can go in front of the election commission and contest their case, but to her recollection, no one in Greene County has ever done that.

Similarly, county election commissioners purge existing registered voters from the rolls when they’ve been convicted of a disenfranchising crime. Horton said the attorney general’s office periodically sends a list of people with disenfranchising convictions to the election commissioners, who match them to the voter rolls and remove them.

When Bennett’s group worked inside jails to ensure eligible voters have access to registration forms and absentee ballots, she’s had to educate law enforcement officials as much as the folks behind bars. She said she’s met wardens and captains who don’t know the laws about voting in jails.

“There’s a lot of myths around what people in prison can or can’t do, or people who have been to a jail at all. There’s this assumption that once you’ve been to a jail, that everything about your citizenship is null and void — particularly if you’re in a minority community,” Bennett said.

Bounds said that in Greene County, some prisoners at the state’s satellite facilities have written to her for absentee ballots, but only two prisoners have written to her this election season. Also, inmates attempting to register to vote may not use the prison as their address.

Horton said she and many of her college-educated friends didn’t know that only certain felonies are disenfranchising until she became a election commissioner.

“Everybody I have talked to thinks that if you’re a convicted felon, regardless of what the crime is, you have lost your right to vote,” Horton said.

It’s hard to gauge how many otherwise eligible people might not be voting because they think they’ve been banned.

“We don’t know because they don’t call to see. They don’t come down to see,” Horton said. “I haven’t had the opportunity, the pleasure to tell anybody that because they just assume that they can’t.”

Giving options

In Mississippi, disenfranchised citizens may only regain their suffrage through a bill in the Legislature or directly from the governor. Lawmakers introduced 10 of these bills in the 2018 session. Of those, four were successful, four died in committee, one died during the vote on the Senate floor and one, on behalf of Joseph Fick, passed each chamber but was vetoed by the governor.

Fick, who was convicted of receiving stolen property and possession of a controlled substance in 1992, told Mississippi Today he didn’t know what happened with his suffrage bill. He said he’ll try again next legislative session.

After 25 years, he wants to regain his right to vote because of his granddaughter.

“I want to teach her how to vote. I just want to teach her that way of life, to cherish what little rights we have left,” Fick said.

In his veto explanation, Gov. Phil Bryant said the decision to restore voting rights is contingent on “the support of law enforcement and the person’s ability to show responsibility and honesty after conviction.”

Bryant generally declines to sign these suffrage bills but often allows them to become law without his signature.

Coxwell pointed out the juxtaposition between the U.S. considering itself a “Christian country” — a religion based in forgiveness — and our nation having “some of the most punitive laws and punitive consequences that, in many cases, are unforgiving forever.”

Blackerby said he suspects Mississippi is fine to keep it this way.

With the voting ban, Blackerby said, the state wants to “put you in a category that you think you can’t climb out of, and then the rest of society looks at you and goes, ‘That’s just sad; those people are so sorry.’ Really that’s not the case at all.”

Still, Blackerby expresses fatigue over election outcomes, especially when the winner of the popular vote is not victorious, such as in the 2016 presidential election. He admitted he won’t be voting any time soon.

“Everybody should still be given an option regardless,” Blackerby said.

Anyone unsure if they’re eligible to vote should contact their local circuit clerk or the Secretary of State’s election hotline 1-800-829-6786. Data reporter Alex Rozier contributed to this report.