What Are the Prospects for an Initiative on Rights Restoration in Mississippi?

With the legislative path sidelined once more, could the state emulate Florida in narrowing felony disenfranchisement?

Daniel Nichanian | March 27, 2019

This article originally appeared on The Appeal, which hosted The Political Report project.

The success of Amendment 4, Florida’s 2018 initiative to expand voting rights, may have boosted efforts to reform felony disenfranchisement nationwide. But Mississippi’s Republican lawmakers were ultimately unmoved. The last of the rights restoration bills that was still standing in Mississippi’s legislative session died last week.

This also killed the possibility that 2019 might bring legislative reform to a state that permanently disenfranchises nearly 10 percent of its voting-age population.

With the legislative path sidelined once more, what are the prospects and obstacles for the state to emulate Florida in pursuing a popular initiative?

Mississippi advocates to whom I asked this question mentioned an arduous qualifying process and a need for national attention and funding, among other factors. They also emphasized that they would support such an effort and believed it could succeed. “The will of the public is there, our lawmakers are just not paying attention to what the citizens want,” said Nsombi Lambright, executive director of the Jackson-based civic engagement organization One Voice. A statewide poll, conducted by Tulchin Research and released by the Southern Poverty Law Center in January, found that 68 percent of registered voters support a reform similar to Amendment 4, which curtailed the lifetime nature of disenfranchisement in Florida by allowing people to regain their voting rights once they complete a sentence for most felony convictions.

Reforming Mississippi’s system in a manner similar to Florida would require amending the state constitution, a step that must be approved by the state’s already-enfranchised residents.

The legislature can initiate such a referendum. But the bill that died in March did not even go that far. It would only have created a committee to study the impact of potential reforms. More ambitious proposals had already died at an earlier stage of the legislative process. “In our state legislature, it's still seen as a partisan issue, and it's also seen as a racial issue, and things have not changed in the past fifteen years I've worked on the issue,” Lambright said.

Organizers can also place a constitutional amendment on the Mississippi ballot through a popular initiative. That is what happened in Florida, where organizers led by the group Floridians for a Fair Democracy submitted nearly 800,000 signatures to qualify Amendment 4. Two Mississippi lawmakers who introduced some of the year’s failed legislative proposals, Senator David Blount and Representative Kabir Karriem, told me that they would back a popular initiative effort.

This path raises some logistical and financial difficulties, and the Political Report was told of no active initiative effort on voting rights in the state.

For one, state rules to get an initiative on the ballot are onerous. “It's a technically difficult process in Mississippi,” said Jeremy Eisler, a campaign director at the Mississippi Center for Justice. Organizers have one year to collect a number of certified signatures equal to 12 percent of the total number of votes cast in the last gubernatorial election—and those signatures need to be distributed across the state’s congressional districts as they were drawn in 1991. These difficulties would be compounded by the fact that those most impacted—disenfranchised individuals—would be barred from signing the initiative.

Such rules pose financial challenges for state groups. “Ballot initiatives are very, very expensive,” Lambright said. “It's going to take more than one or two organizations coming together to make it a reality.” Beth Orlansky, the advocacy director of the Mississippi Center for Justice, agreed that local grassroots groups may not have “the resources to begin a campaign.” She said that ”it would be much more likely to get somewhere if there was a foundation or a donor from out-of-state that was willing to help.”

“It takes people and it takes money, it takes national interest,” said Jennifer Riley-Collins, executive director of the ACLU of Mississippi. “Often in the national civil rights movement, to move many things forward in the South, it took national attention being brought on the problems.”

But Riley-Collins added there may be enough appetite for such a push in the wake of “the momentum that came out of Florida.” In December, I talked to organizers in Kentucky, another state with restrictive laws, who drew similar inspiration from Amendment 4’s success.

Even if a popular initiative were to qualify, a new set of difficulties would emerge: the legislature can choose to place an alternative on the ballot. In 2015, some observers attributed the failure of Proposition 42, a proposal to strengthen public education funding, to the confusing ballot design that resulted from the legislature’s decision to add a competing proposal, labeled Proposition 42-A. Karriem invoked Initiative 42 to note that “making sure that the legislature doesn't come up with alternative language” could be key to ballot initiative’s chances.

All this said, one rule that would facilitate reform is that a constitutional amendment only needs to cross 50 percent in Mississippi (as long as enough voters answer the question). Florida’s initiative faced a much higher threshold of 60 percent.

A referendum also involves a difficult dynamic of hinging some people’s voting rights on others’ willingness to let them exercise it. But that is not unlike the current setup by which elected officials are to decide whether to restore an individual’s rights, and disenfranchised activists have played leading roles in the actual organization and campaign of other states' reform drives.

Some organizations are focusing their present efforts on pursuing litigation. Two lawsuits are currently pending. The first, filed by the Mississippi Center for Justice, focuses on the system’s racist history and on its disparate impact today. According to the Sentencing Project, 16 percent of Black adults were disenfranchised in 2016 compared to 6 percent of the rest of the state’s population.

The second, filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, argues that for the ban to last beyond one’s sentence is a cruel and unusual punishment. It also argues that Mississippi’s rights restoration procedure, which requires legislation enfranchising one specific individual, is standardless and therefore offers no protection from decisions “steeped in racial animus,” as Paloma Wu, senior staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center, put it in an interview. Wu told me that Mississippi has no “racially neutral mechanism” for people to regain the right to vote, and that the system is designed to exclude individuals “through rules designed to hand-pick particular people through a criminal justice system that we know hand-picks particular people.”

Whatever the path to reform, state advocates expressed confidence in eventually achieving change. “We know that change did not come in Florida overnight,” Riley-Collins told me, “We have been working on this issue here in Mississippi for a long time and we know that it will not come overnight, but … we look forward to people being restored and being able to participate in this most basic right of citizenship.”