Mississippi has the highest percentage of Black residents in the country at nearly 39%. White Republicans have long had total control over state government due to an array of voter suppression policies dating back to Reconstruction, designed to keep the formerly enslaved from exercising full citizenship rights.
Mississippi has an extreme felony disenfranchisement law, with rights taken away permanently with little recourse for restoration. More than 10% of adults in the state, the highest rate in the country, were affected as of 2020.
That includes more than 130,000 Black voters, 16% of the adult Black population in the state.
In the past two years, Mississippi’s Republican-dominated legislature has rejected numerous attempts to provide some pathway for people with felony convictions to have their rights restored.
As he was designating April as Confederate Heritage Month, Republican Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves vetoed the one bill that was passed with bipartisan support. It would have restored the right to vote for a narrow set of people who have had crimes expunged from their record by a judge.
“Felony disenfranchisement is an animating principle of the social contract at the heart of every great republic dating back to the founding of ancient Greece and Rome,” said Gov. Reeves in his veto message. “In America, such laws date back to the colonies and the eventual founding of our Republic.”
In Mississippi, the history Reeves references was a ploy by white enslavers outnumbered by newly freed Black men who suddenly had the right to vote and run for political office. In 1890, white elected officials wrote disenfranchisement into the state constitution for people convicted of a long list of crimes designed to target Black men specifically.
It was only last year that the state voted to remove Confederate imagery from the state flag.
Deep inequity in voting access
Voter turnout in the 2020 presidential election in Mississippi was about 60%, the sixth worst in the country.
From felony disenfranchisement, to racial gerrymandering, to strict photo ID requirements at the polls, Mississippi employs most of the tactics traditionally used to keep Black people from voting or thwart their representation and influence in government.
It has rejected most of the policies known to level the playing field of voting access to lower-income voters and people of color.
About this series
This project looks at the state of voting access, voting rights and inequities in political representation in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.
Registering to vote is more difficult and limited than almost any other state.
So is voting absentee. It’s allowed only in limited circumstances — fear of contracting or spreading COVID-19, for example, isn’t one of them — and requires a notary public to sign off.
And Mississippi is one of only six states with no form of early voting period.
Offering few options to vote other than showing up in person on Election Day can mean long lines at local polling places, especially in disproportionately Black communities with fewer resources to staff them.
Local officials who turned to outside grants to supplement the cost of running elections, especially as the COVID-19 pandemic required hazard pay and supplies to put health precautions in place, no longer have that option in Mississippi.
The state was among two dozen controlled by Republicans to pass legislation since the 2020 election that bans acceptance of private funding to support election administration. Right-wing groups have promoted copycat legislation fueled by conspiracy theories about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, who donated $350 million to the nonprofit Center for Technology and Civic Life to support such grants.
Some Jim Crow tactics abandoned
In 2020, Mississippi residents voted to remove a Jim Crow-era provision from the state’s constitution that was designed to limit the ability of Black citizens from winning statewide office. The provision, a Mississippi version of the Electoral College system, required statewide office holders to win a majority of the statewide popular vote but also secure the most votes in the majority of more than 100 state House districts.
While Republican leaders in the state legislature supported the change, Reeves called it a ploy “to help elect Democrats.”
Earlier this year, Mississippi’s legislature repealed a 1924 law that put an extra burden on people who were not born in the United States to show proof of citizenship. It was replaced with legislation that still calls for a check on citizenship, but puts the burden on local election officials to check national immigration records first. While voting rights advocates would prefer that no extra burden be placed on legal immigrants, something that’s been unique to Mississippi, they’ve described it as an improvement over the previous law.
Despite representing more than a third of the state’s population, Black voters are a majority in only one of the state’s four U.S. congressional districts due to gerrymandering by Republicans in the legislature.
“For decades, the Mississippi Legislature has used the redistricting process to create an unfair political landscape for Black voters. If recent redistricting trends continue, Mississippi’s legislature will be even more unjustly representative of the state,” said Mississippi ACLU Executive Director Jarvis Dortch in an August 2021 press release.
Mississippi recently redrew the boundaries of its congressional districts. They’re basically the same as in 2010.
The American Civil Liberties Union, Mississippi ACLU and Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit over the redrawing of state Supreme Court districts in April. The lawsuit claims the state violated Section 2 of the federal Voting Rights Act because it doesn’t provide fair representation for Black voters. None of the three Supreme Court districts have a Black voting age population majority.
Only four Black people have been elected to the state Supreme Court in the last 100 years.
Unlike southern states such as Virginia and Kentucky, where governors of both parties have regularly restored the voting rights of people formerly incarcerated after they’ve completed their sentences, Mississippi almost never does.
The state has restored the voting rights of only 26 disenfranchised people since 2016.
There are two routes to restoring the right to vote in Mississippi. The governor can pardon the individual, or the legislature can pass a law to restore that person’s right to vote.
The nonprofit Mississippi Votes has created a digital version of the form required to start this process and will submit the written application on behalf of the individual.
A legislative committee reviews the application. Most attempts are denied in the state Senate. But even if approved, it falls right back into the hands of the governor to sign or veto.
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