- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 27, 2018

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) - Mississippi has enacted unfair barriers that stop former convicts from regaining their right to vote, a new federal lawsuit says.

The class-action suit, filed Tuesday, says Mississippi’s system is “harsh, punitive and unforgiving” and disproportionately hurts African-Americans.

The lawsuit seeks what 40 states already have: automatic or uncomplicated restoration of voting rights once a person completes a sentence for a disenfranchising crime.

“They’ve paid their debt to society and they’re productive citizens with families, with loved ones, who love this state but unfortunately are not loved back,” said Jody Owens of the Southern Poverty Law Center. He’s one of the attorneys who filed the lawsuit against the Mississippi secretary of state.

The suit was filed on behalf of six men who have completed their sentences and want to vote and tens of thousands of other people who remain disenfranchised.

Byron Coleman, 54, of Byram, Mississippi, lost his right to vote when he was convicted of receiving stolen property in 1997. He completed his sentence the next year, but remains disenfranchised. A father of 11 and grandfather of 16, Coleman, who is African-American, worked as a delivery driver until he had a stroke. He said Tuesday that he hopes to vote “before I leave this world.”

During a news conference about the lawsuit, Coleman, who is one of the plaintiffs, said: “If God can forgive me, why can’t man?”

The Mississippi Constitution specifies 10 crimes for which convictions remove voting rights, including murder, forgery and bigamy. A state attorney general’s opinion later added 12 more disenfranchising crimes, including timber larceny and carjacking. To regain their right to vote, these ex-convicts must get permission from two-thirds of the Legislature and the governor. The lawsuit says only 14 people have managed this in the past five years. The current governor, Republican Phil Bryant, has been letting suffrage restoration bills become law without his signature.

“It is a cumbersome process,” said Jonathan K. Youngwood, a New York-based attorney who also represents the plaintiffs. “It takes months or years. It is rarely successful and … it is rarely invoked.”

Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, a Republican, is Mississippi’s top elections officer. Spokeswoman Leah Rupp Smith said Hosemann does not comment on pending lawsuits.

Between 1994 and 2017, about 47,000 people in Mississippi were convicted of disenfranchising crimes, and about 60 percent of them have completed their sentences but have not regained their voting rights, Youngwood said. Some are still serving time.

African-Americans make up about 38 percent of Mississippi’s population and 36.5 percent of the state’s registered voters. Youngwood said 59 percent to 60 percent of people convicted of disenfranchising crimes in the state are black.

Another plaintiff, Dennis Hopkins, 43, of Holly Springs, was convicted of grand larceny 20 years ago and completed his sentence 16 years ago. Hopkins, who is white, is a father of eight. He owns a towing business and has served as a volunteer fire chief and youth sports coach.

“It makes me sad that the state of Mississippi doesn’t allow me to vote, but it allows me to pay my taxes. … Everything that they’ve asked me to do, I’ve done it,” Hopkins said Tuesday. “I feel that Mississippi is doing me wrong.”

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Follow Emily Wagster Pettus on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus .

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