You can shoot an innocent person and, as long as the wound is not fatal, continue to vote not only after you get out of prison but also while you’re behind bars.
If you write a bad check, however, and don’t make good on it quickly enough, you could lose your right to vote for the rest of your life.
That doesn’t make sense, does it?
But that’s how Mississippi’s law on disenfranchising felons works. It spells out 22 specific crimes — vastly varying in severity — for which a conviction brings a permanent loss of voting rights unless the Legislature votes to restore them or a governor grants clemency.
In a splendid piece of journalism last week, Mississippi Today, the online news organization, examined this issue in depth.
What it uncovered is that most people in this state — including the offenders themselves — think that every felony brings a lifetime voting ban.
It doesn’t. In fact, according to the news site’s count, nearly 130,000 Mississippians have been convicted since 1994 of crimes that don’t strip them of their vote. Almost half of these have been convicted of drug-related offenses.
Nevertheless, many of them believe they are disenfranchised, and it’s a long educational process to convince them otherwise. Mississippi Today found at least two cases where state lawmakers have introduced bills to restore the voting rights of felons whose crimes were actually not disqualifying.
Besides the confusion and misinformation about the current law, the other side of the question is what to do about the 10 percent of Mississippians who truly can no longer vote, even after they have served their sentence.
At least a couple of lawsuits have been filed challenging the state’s felony voting ban, claiming it is rooted in a Reconstruction-era effort by white supremacists to keep blacks from voting.
Rob McDuff, a civil rights attorney handling one of the lawsuits, says that the 10 disenfranchising crimes listed in the 1890 Constitution — a document notorious for trying to keep former slaves and their children powerless — were selected by framers because they believed those 10 were committed largely by black people. Many crimes of violence, which at the time were being perpetrated by whites on blacks, were not included.
In 2009, Attorney General Jim Hood’s office tried to clarify some of the confusion by adding 12 more offenses that related to the original disqualifying crime of theft, but it did not remove the irrationality of why some felonies are included while others are not.
Nor did it address the fact that, because of higher conviction rates for blacks than whites, a disproportionate number of blacks are kept from voting.
The Mississippi Legislature should not wait on the courts to attack this issue. It has a few options.
One would be to overhaul the list and include only the more severe and violent crimes, such as murder or rape.
Another would be to include all felonies and take the policymakers’ discretion out of it.
Whichever it does, it should also create an uncomplicated procedure, as at least 40 states have done, to allow voting rights to be restored once felons complete their sentence.
In doing so, lawmakers would have to be careful in defining what it means to “complete” a sentence. They should include satisfying not just the time behind bars but also probation, parole, restitution to victims or other alternatives to prison, such as house arrest.
That way, they wouldn’t create an incentive for the courts to back away from the current trend of imposing sentences that are less expensive and more likely to foster rehabilitation than does incarceration.
Once the offenders, though, have paid their debt to society, whatever the debt the courts have decided is appropriate, the best thing that society can do is help them not return to a life of crime.
Getting an education, developing work skills and finding employment are the best deterrents to breaking the law.
Participating in civic life also helps. When adults can’t vote, they feel lesser and apart from adults who can. If you don’t feel as if you have a voice in who runs the country and how it’s run, you’re less likely to respect the law and those elected to power.
On Tuesday, voters went to the polls in this state to cast their ballots. It will be a surprise if a majority of those eligible to vote actually did so. There’s plenty of room for those who’ve learned from their mistakes and made amends for their criminal past to join them.