More than a century ago, Mississippi adopted a state constitution that was specifically intended to prevent freed slaves and their descendants from gaining political influence, in part by blocking their access to the ballot box. Today, a provision of that 1890 constitution – a lifetime voting ban for anyone convicted of certain crimes – is still having its intended effect: Between 1994 and 2017, nearly 50,000 Mississippians were banned for life from voting due to conviction of a disqualifying offense.
Sixty percent of Mississippians who are banned from voting have completed their sentences. In recent decades, black voting-age Mississippians have been disenfranchised at over twice the rate of white voting-age Mississippians. Between 2013 and 2017, Mississippi legislators have voted to restore the right to vote to just 15 Mississippians.
The suit contends that the lifetime voting ban violates the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment; the First Amendment’s right to political expression and association; and the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment on the grounds that it arbitrarily grants or deprives citizens of the right to vote and that it was intended to discriminate on the basis of race.
Mississippi also 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.
The suit is intended to help people like Dennis Hopkins, one of six named plaintiffs. He was convicted of grand larceny more than 20 years ago. Now, he owns his towing business. He’s been a parent to foster kids and is raising eight children with his wife, a school teacher. He’s spent countless hours volunteering as a coach for youth sports – even founding a local peewee football team. But he gets no say in the political leadership of his city, state or nation. “I have paid Mississippi what I owe it in full, but I still can’t cast my vote for my children’s future,” he says. “I feel like a branded man.”
The law firm Simpson Thacher & Bartlett LLP is co-counsel in the case.