On Sept. 22 of this year, the 5th circuit of the Federal Court of Appeals heard arguments regarding Mississippi’s felony voting ban. Mississippi’s current law states that “you permanently lose the right to vote if you are convicted of one of 23 barred crimes,” with only the governor or the state congress being able to restore this right. Two lawsuits have been filed challenging these voting restrictions, one by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the other by the Mississippi Center for Justice.
This antiquated law, which began as a list of crimes state legislators thought African Americans would commit, is not only racist but also hinders the progression of Mississippi. This law, written during the Jim Crow era, worked to prohibit unjustly convicted African Americans from ever voting. This injustice continues to the present day by continuing to punish felons long after they have already served their time.
This is seen in the case of Dennis Hopkins, who was charged with grand larceny in 1998. Since his release, he has served his community by becoming “a foster parent, city employee and youth mentor.” Despite these contributions to his community, Hopkins is prohibited from voting for life. Hopkins has argued before the Court of Appeals that he has already paid his debt to society and asked “did you sentence me to four years in prison or did you sentence me to a life sentence?”
I can partially understand the argument that felons should not be allowed to vote. Why should they have a say in our community when they have actively betrayed it? However, people like Dennis Hopkins are actively trying to better their community while still being isolated from it by the voting ban. How can we argue that one of the main goals of our prison system is to reform criminals when we never give them an opportunity to re-enter the community?
The argument that this law protects our community begins to crumble when you see that when this bill was created, murder and rape were not included in the list of crimes which resulted in not being able to vote. Murder and rape are arguably the most detrimental crimes to a community, yet they were not added as barred crimes until 1968, nearly 78 years after this law was originally enacted.
If this law was truly about protecting the Mississippi community, these crimes would have been the first ones on the list. Therefore, it makes sense that the current challenges to the law include arguments that murder and rape should continue to prohibit people from voting from life, while removing the other 21.
If Mississippi truly cared about its citizens, it would overturn or repeal this law. Forward progression and improvement on our past should be both Mississippi’s and our nation’s goal. Erasing people’s voices for life because of a single mistake that they have already repented for prohibits this positive change. Keeping this law will only serve to trap Mississippi in the past.
Abigail Myers is a sophomore majoring in English and psychology from New Orleans, LA.