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Mississippi ex-felons oppose merger of 2 voting rights cases

Some former convicts who want to regain voting rights in Mississippi say their lawsuit should stand on its own and not be merged with a similar case.

Posted: Apr 23, 2018 6:50 PM

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — Some former convicts who want to regain voting rights in Mississippi say their lawsuit should stand on its own and not be merged with a similar case.

Two federal lawsuits are challenging Mississippi's system for restoring suffrage to people convicted of certain felonies. One was filed in September by the Mississippi Center for Justice and other attorneys, representing some former convicts. The other was filed in March by the Southern Poverty Law Center and other attorneys, with a different set of plaintiffs who had lost voting rights because of felony convictions.

The state's top elections official, Republican Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, filed papers April 5 requesting consolidation of the two cases, which he said are similar. They are assigned to different judges.

Plaintiffs in the second case said in papers filed Thursday that the lawsuits should remain separate because they make different arguments about how Mississippi violates people's federal constitutional rights.

The Mississippi Constitution strips voting rights from people convicted of 10 felonies, including murder, forgery and bigamy. The attorney general later expanded that list to 22, adding crimes that included including timber larceny and carjacking.

To regain voting rights, a former convict must get permission from the governor and two-thirds of the Legislature.

Only 14 people have managed this from 2013 through 2017, and four more did during the 2018 legislative session.

Republican Gov. Phil Bryant is now in his seventh year in office, and has let suffrage restoration bills become law without his signature. This year, he let four become law without signing them and vetoed the fifth. In a brief veto message April 13, he said restoring voting rights depends on the support of law enforcement "and the person's ability to show responsibility and honesty after conviction."

Between 1994 and 2017, about 47,000 people in Mississippi were convicted of disenfranchising crimes, and about 60 percent of them have completed their sentences but have not regained their voting rights, said Jonathan K. Youngwood, a New York-based attorney in the March lawsuit. Some are still serving time.

African-Americans make up about 38 percent of Mississippi's population and 36.5 percent of the state's registered voters. Youngwood said 59 percent to 60 percent of people convicted of disenfranchising crimes in the state are black.

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