Mississippi Governor Restores Voting Rights to Some, Denies Relief to Others

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Over a dozen Mississippi residents with prior felony convictions will be able to vote in this fall’s general election after legislative proposals to restore their voting rights became law on Tuesday without the governor’s signature.

Proposals for 14 people became law without Gov. Tate Reeves’ signature, while another bill was on Reeves’ desk awaiting his signature, as of Thursday.

The Republican governor on Monday signed into law two bills that restored voting rights to two individuals, and vetoed bills that restored voting rights to four other people, records show.

It’s unclear why some individuals were approved and others weren’t; nor is it clear why Reeves signed some proposals and let others become law without his signature. Reeves did not appear to give a reason for the vetoes. Democracy Docket reached out to Reeves’ office for comment on Wednesday.

Democracy Docket also reached out to the 13 state legislators, including three Republicans, who authored or sponsored suffrage bills in the 2024 session.

One lawmaker, Democratic state Rep. Ricky Thompson, told Democracy Docket in a phone interview Thursday that he also doesn’t know Reeves’ reasoning. Thompson sponsored two suffrage bills, records show — one that Reeves approved and another that became law without Reeves’ signature.

“It’s a mystery to me,” he said. 

Three of the individuals who were denied have past convictions for grand larceny, while the fourth person was convicted of stealing a vehicle. Others whose unsigned bills became law also have convictions for grand larceny.

Under the Mississippi Constitution, individuals convicted of certain felony offenses — such as murder, theft and arson — lose their right to vote for life. A group of disenfranchised voters is currently challenging the longstanding prohibition, which has been on the books for over 100 years.

The state constitution also allows the Legislature to restore the right to vote to an individual disqualified because of a crime, but requires a two-thirds vote of both chambers. The governor can sign the bill, return it to the Legislature with objections, veto it or leave it unsigned. If the governor hasn’t returned or taken action within five days after receiving the bill, it becomes law.  

A two-thirds majority in both chambers is required to override a governor’s veto. According to Mississippi Today, Republican leaders in the GOP-controlled Legislature decided Monday that lawmakers would not convene on Tuesday, when the session officially ended, to override Reeves’ vetoes.

The local publication also reported that Reeves, until this week, had never signed a suffrage bill since he’s been in office. Last year, the state Legislature didn’t restore voting rights to a single person, for the first time since 2016

Mississippi does not currently have a detailed set of guidelines or standards one can use for undergoing the restoration process. A number of nonprofit organizations and advocacy groups, such as the Mississippi Prison Reform Coalition, regularly help individuals start the legislative process, according to Paloma Wu, the deputy director of impact litigation at the Mississippi Center for Justice.

Wu described the restoration process as “chaos.”

“What you see is chaos, arbitrariness, standardlessness,” Wu told Democracy Docket in a phone interview. “Because there [are] no standards, Tate Reeves doesn’t have to say why he vetoed those four people.”

Thompson said that, in his experience, people with nonviolent convictions are usually more likely to be approved by the Legislature. “If it’s a violent crime, they really won’t consider anything like that,” he said.

Reeves’ inconsistency seems to highlight the arbitrary nature of the voting restoration process for people with criminal backgrounds. The two people whose proposals were signed by the governor, for example, were convicted of burglary and false pretenses, respectively. Without an explanation from the governor or lawmakers, it’s unclear what makes one individual more deserving than another, besides the severity of the offense.

These concerns formed the basis of a 2018 class action lawsuit filed by a group of disenfranchised voters against Mississippi’s Republican secretary of state. The voters argue that the constitution’s suffrage bill provision “establishes no objective criteria for the restoration of voting rights.”

“Instead, Mississippi legislators have complete discretion to determine whether or not to allow a disenfranchised citizen to vote again,” the voters assert, noting that in the last five years (since they filed their lawsuit), only 14 Mississippians have successfully gotten their voting rights restored. 

The disenfranchised voters allege that Section 241 of the state constitution — the provision that disqualifies people with certain offenses from voting — violates the 8th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment and that Section 253 — which lays out the legislative process for voting restoration — violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment.

Not only does a person with a certain felony conviction lose their right to vote, Wu said, that person has “functionally no way to get that right to vote back.”

“I don’t mean that we don’t have a suffrage process,” she said. “We do. But it’s not a path. It’s a shot in the dark.”

Both the complaint and Wu noted that the provisions came about during the Jim Crow era. Section 241 was enshrined in Mississippi’s 1890 constitution with the express purpose of denying Black men the right to vote.

Wu says the current process allows for “undetectable favoritism.”

“I don’t know if one of the people that was vetoed is Gov. Reeves’ enemy and one of the people that was not vetoed is Gov. Reeves’ nephew,” Wu said, speaking hypothetically. “It’s undetectable. And that’s where the due process constitutional issue comes up.”

In 2019, a federal district court in Mississippi held that the voters who brought the case had the right to bring their claims, but rejected their constitutional arguments over Sections 241 and 253. The plaintiffs then appealed to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

In August of 2023, a three-judge panel struck down Section 241 in a ruling that found the provision unconstitutional. But the provision remained intact after Mississippi’s Republican attorney general filed a petition for a rehearing with the full 5th Circuit. 

In September 2023, a couple of months before the gubernatorial election in November, the conservative federal appeals court agreed to rehear the case and voided its own panel’s decision. The decision was consistent with the court’s recent trend of rehearing cases with pro-democratic rulings. The court heard oral argument in January and has not yet issued a ruling.

Whether through the courts or legislative efforts, Thompson said the system has to change. “Once you’ve paid your dues to society,” he said, “your right to vote should definitely be restored because that’s the only way to participate in the [democratic] process.” A lifetime ban, he said, isn’t “good for society.”

“People can change.”

Learn more about the case here.