Mississippi should restore the voting rights of former felons, Democratic candidates say

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Mississippi should stop defending a Jim Crow-era portion of its state constitution that permanently strips voting rights from people convicted of certain felonies, the Democratic nominees for two statewide offices said Thursday.

Greta Kemp Martin faces first-term Republican Attorney General Lynn Fitch and Ty Pinkins faces first-term Republican Secretary of State Michael Watson in the Nov. 7 election.

Kemp Martin said a panel of federal appeals judges made the correct decision Aug. 4 when they ruled that Mississippi's ban on voting after conviction for crimes including forgery and bigamy is a violation of the U.S. Constitution's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.

The disenfranchisement is "a continued punishment for people who have served their sentence to the state of Mississippi,” Kemp Martin said Thursday. "And they deserve the right to be able to enter their community and participate in one of our most sacred rights.”

Fitch, who represents Watson in court, filed papers Aug. 18 asking the full 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to reconsider the panel's ruling and to continue allowing the permanent disenfranchisement of some residents.

Kemp Martin said if she is elected attorney general, she will drop the request for a rehearing. If the panel's ruling stands, tens of thousands of Mississippi residents would regain voting rights after they finish serving their sentences.

Pinkins, appearing at a Vicksburg news conference with Kemp Martin, said regaining the right to vote is vital for people who have left prison.

“You're not a full citizen if you can't exercise that fundamental right," Pinkins said. "Secretary of State Michael Watson and Attorney General Lynn Fitch — they have been fighting so that we can't overturn that archaic law."

The Associated Press sent emails to spokespeople for Fitch and Watson on Thursday, seeking response to comments by their challengers. In response, Fitch spokesperson Debbee Hancock referred to part of Fitch's filing to the appeals court: “The panel ruled that it could invalidate a category of felon disenfranchisement, that Mississippi’s disenfranchisement law imposes ‘punishment’ under the U.S. Constitution, and that that law is cruel and unusual. As Judge Jones explained in dissent, all those conclusions are wrong.”

The New Orleans-based 5th Circuit is widely considered one of the most conservative federal appeals courts. Fitch asked the full court — with 16 active judges — to reconsider the case, saying the 2-1 ruling by the panel conflicts with Supreme Court precedent and rulings in other circuit courts. Attorneys challenging the ban filed papers Aug. 31, disagreeing with Fitch.

A separate lawsuit used a different argument to challenge Mississippi's prohibition on voting by people with felony convictions — and in 2022, the 5th Circuit ruled against those plaintiffs. That lawsuit argued the lifetime disenfranchisement was designed to keep Black people out of power. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court said it would not consider that case, allowing the ruling to stand.

The lawsuit that the Supreme Court declined to hear was based on arguments about equal protection. Plaintiffs said that the authors of the Mississippi Constitution in 1890 stripped voting rights for crimes they thought Black people were more likely to commit, including forgery, larceny and bigamy.