JACKSON, Miss. (CN) – A federal class action filed Tuesday accuses Mississippi of enforcing an arcane lifetime voting ban that keeps citizens convicted of certain felonies from ever being able to vote.
The lawsuit was filed in Jackson federal court by Southern Poverty Law Center attorneys on behalf of six men who claim their constitutional rights are violated by Mississippi’s voting system, which they say disproportionately harms African-American voters and goes against the Eight Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.
The Mississippi Constitution allows for the disqualification of a person’s right to vote if they have been convicted of certain felonies, including murder, rape, bribery, theft, arson and other crimes.
Herman Parker, 44, one of the lead plaintiffs, lost his right to vote when he was 19 years old, after a 1993 grand larceny conviction. In 2012, more than 14 years after he completed his sentence, Parker unsuccessfully petitioned to have his voting rights restored through Mississippi’s legislative “suffrage bill” process, but his bid failed in the state Senate.
“I’m a husband and father of two beautiful children, and I’m proud to have worked for the city of Vicksburg’s housing authority for over a decade,” Parker said in a statement. “I’m not that 19-year-old boy anymore – I’m a man and deserve a voice in government because of who I am today.”
Mississippi is one of only four states to impose lifelong voting bans, joining Florida, Iowa and Kentucky, according to the lawsuit. It says the state’s voting system is “harsh, punitive and unforgiving” and “one of the most extreme and unjust in the nation.”
“Our clients are citizens who made a mistake, paid their debt to society long ago, and now live and work alongside us, pay taxes, worship with us, fight in our wars, send their children to school with ours, and are equal members of our society in every way save one,” said Jody Owens, an attorney with the SPLC. “They have no say in our representation in Mississippi and in Washington.”
The lawsuit seeks to restore the voting rights of Mississippi residents impacted by the state’s system.
Dennis Hopkins, 43, another plaintiff, spent four years in prison after a 1998 grand larceny conviction. A towing business owner and father of eight, Hopkins, who is white, says he is devastated by his inability to vote.
“No matter how I’ve lived for the past 20 years, I don’t count, not my values or my experience. I have paid Mississippi what I owe it in full, but I still can’t cast my vote for my children’s future,” he said.
The class action was brought against the state’s lead elections officer, Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, whose office declined to comment on pending litigation in local news reports.
It is the second lawsuit in the last six months aimed at restoring the voting rights of former convicts. A bench trial for a mirror September lawsuit has been set for March 2019.
In 2010, the Fifth Circuit ruled that the Mississippi Constitution does not allow convicted felons to vote in presidential elections, knocking down a challenge by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of two convicted felons who were barred from voting in the 2008 presidential election.
Other lawsuits challenging voting-banning systems have been filed in Alabama and Florida.