Mississippi’s constitution bars its citizens from voting ever again after being convicted of certain felonies. Now a legal group wants the federal courts to remove what it calls an illegal vestige of white supremacy by striking down most of these restrictions. Attorney Rob McDuff, who filed suit Thursday in Jackson, estimates that more than 50,000 Mississippians have been disqualified from voting since 1994 due to these convictions. About 60 percent are African-American, in a state whose population is 37 percent black. The suit describes the disenfranchising crimes as “an integral part of the overall effort to prevent African-Americans in Mississippi from voting. Once you’ve paid your debt to society, I believe you should be allowed to participate again,” said plaintiff Kamal Karriem, a 58-year-old former Columbus city councilman who pleaded guilty to embezzlement in 2005 after being charged with stealing a city cellphone. “I don’t think it should be held against you for the rest of your life.”
The initial list of crimes justifying a lifetime voting ban in the 1890 Mississippi Constitution, the result of a process meant to taking the vote away from black people, included embezzlement, forgery, bribery, burglary, theft, arson, perjury, bigamy and obtaining money or property through false pretense. Today, that last crime can involve writing a bad check for as little as $100.
The suit notes that the same constitution adopted restrictive poll taxes, literacy requirements and residency requirements to disenfranchise people. Most of those have been struck down, removed or weakened over the ensuing 125 years.