State of Mississippi

Mississippi Felony Disenfranchisement Law (Harness)

Harness v. Watson

Lawsuit filed on behalf of individuals with past felony convictions challenging the felony disenfranchisement provision of Mississippi’s Constitution enacted in 1890, which strips the right to vote for life from anyone convicted of bribery, theft, arson, obtaining money or goods under false pretense, perjury, forgery, embezzlement or bigamy. Burglary was originally a disqualifying conviction, but was removed from the list in 1950. Rape and murder were added as disqualifying convictions in 1968 and are not challenged in this lawsuit. The complaint argues that the “list of disqualifying crimes adopted in 1890 that remains in [the state Constitution] today (with the exception of burglary) was chosen by the 1890 framers with the intent to discriminate against African-Americans and prevent them from voting” and therefore has both a discriminatory intent and impact on African American voters in the state. The district court consolidated the case with a similar suit, Hopkins v. Hosemann. The district court later severed this case from Hopkins and dismissed the Harness complaint after granting summary judgment in favor of the defendants, holding that the provision, as amended in the 1950s and 1960s, was done “without racial motivation.” On appeal, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed, but later granted a petition for rehearing en banc. Litigation is ongoing.

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