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SPLC lawsuit seeks to restore Mississippi citizens’ right to vote

When they were children, Herman Parker and his three sisters went to their grandparents’ house every election day.

After a meal with family, their mother – like her mother before her – took the children to watch her vote.

Parker’s mother and grandmother have since passed away. But his sisters – now old enough to cast their own ballots – continue the family tradition of traveling together to the polls.

Parker, however, does not join them.

More than 25 years ago when he was a teenager, Parker was convicted in a Mississippi state court of grand larceny. Under a state law that imposes a lifetime voting ban on people who have been convicted of certain crimes, he is unable to cast a ballot. The law disproportionately affects African-American citizens like Parker.

“When I was young, I always looked forward to Election Day,” Parker said. “Now, I dread Election Day because it reminds me of what I have lost. I cannot bring myself to join in any of the day’s festivities.”

Parker is one of the named plaintiffs in a lawsuit, Hopkins v. Hosemann, that the SPLC filed against the state of Mississippi, seeking to have the lifetime voting ban on people who have been convicted of certain felonies overturned. The SPLC filed the case with the law firm Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP as co-counsel.

The SPLC’s legal team presented oral arguments in New Orleans this week before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit.

The lawsuit contends that the lifetime voting ban violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, among other claims.

The appellate argument was heard on an expedited schedule, which could help determine whether the Mississippi citizens who lost their right to vote under the law will have their rights restored in time to vote in the 2020 general election. The suit, filed in March of last year, was granted class certification earlier this year.

“Mississippi’s lifetime voting ban is an extension of slavery and Jim Crow, and has no place in a fair and just society,” said Caren Short, senior staff attorney for the SPLC’s voting rights project. “People who have completed their sentences deserve the opportunity to participate fully in our democracy, including the critical right to vote.”

Racially discriminatory history

Mississippi’s voting ban took root more than a century ago, when the state adopted a constitution that was specifically intended to prevent formerly enslaved African Americans and their descendants from gaining political influence, most notably by blocking their access to the ballot box.

Today, a provision of that 1890 state constitution – the lifetime voting ban for anyone convicted of certain crimes – is still having its intended effect: In recent decades, Black voting-age Mississippians have been disenfranchised at over twice the rate of white voting-age Mississippians.

“Very clearly, the Mississippi Constitution of 1890 was written for one purpose and one purpose only, and that was to disenfranchise African Americans, who were the majority of the population in Mississippi, and to empower the proponents of white supremacy,” said Robert Luckett, a history professor at Jackson State University who directs the Margaret Walker Center, which is dedicated to African-American history and culture.

Although the Fifteenth Amendment is credited with giving African Americans the right to vote, Luckett said, it actually says that the right to vote cannot be “denied or abridged” based on race, color or previous condition of servitude.

So instead of explicitly denying the right to vote based on race, Mississippi legislators found other ways to discriminate against African-American voters with poll taxes, literacy tests, residency requirements and felony disenfranchisement. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the state’s right to impose those measures because it did not explicitly discriminate based on race, Luckett said.

Before the state constitution was adopted, 67 percent of eligible Black Mississippi citizens were registered to vote. Two years after the voting ban was enacted, that number plummeted to only 6 percent, even as white voter registration percentages increased.

The disparity continues to this day. A Mississippi Today analysis found that 62 percent of those banned from voting between 1994 and 2017 are African-American, even though African Americans make up 36 percent of the state’s voting-age population.

Under the law, Mississippians can permanently lose their right to vote for minor offenses, such as stealing wood worth $250 or writing one bad check for $100. Nearly 50,000 Mississippians were banned for life from voting under the law between 1994 and 2017.

Voting rights denied

Although Mississippi has a legislative “suffrage” process that allows state lawmakers to restore someone’s voting rights, only a handful of citizens succeed in persuading a legislator to introduce a bill on their behalf. Of the bills that are introduced, most fail to win the required votes. Between 2013 and 2017, Mississippi legislators have voted to restore the right to vote to only 15 Mississippians.

The SPLC lawsuit also argues that the suffrage bill process violates the First Amendment by vesting legislators with unfettered discretion, and that it violates the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause because it discriminates based on race and creates a restoration scheme that is arbitrary and has no standards.

Parker did everything he could to restore his right to vote through that process.

In 2012, more than 14 years after Parker completed his sentence of five years on probation, then-state Rep. George Flaggs Jr. sponsored a suffrage bill on Parker’s behalf. The state House of Representatives voted in favor of restoring his voting rights. But the measure died in a Senate committee, and Parker remains disenfranchised to this day.

Parker, now 45, is a husband and father of two children and has worked for the city of Vicksburg’s housing authority for over 10 years. But, he said, he feels like he will never be good enough again to be a full citizen of Mississippi.

“I remember imagining the day when I would bring my own children to vote, like my grandmother and mother had done with their children,” Parker said. “That day has never come for me. I’m asking for justice to prevail and for the lifetime ban on voting be struck down.”

Photo by Hannah Baldwin