Courts decline to allow Miss. felons to vote

Published 11:09 pm Sunday, October 26, 2008

JACKSON (AP) — An attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union says its unlikely that at least 146,000 convicted felons in Mississippi will be allowed to vote in the Nov. 4 presidential election.

The ACLU concedes that Mississippi law prevents people convicted of certain felonies from voting in most Mississippi and federal elections. However, the ACLU claims in a federal lawsuit filed in September, that there’s an exception in the Mississippi constitution that allows people with felony convictions to vote in the presidential elections.

The state says that’s a misinterpretation.

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‘‘These folks probably won’t be allowed to vote in November unless the district court issues a favorable ruling in the next week — highly unlikely,’’ said Nancy Abudu, a lawyer with the ACLU Voting Rights Project.

Mississippians convicted of 21 types of crimes are prohibited from voting, ranging from murder and rape to bribery and bigamy.

U.S. District Judge Tom Lee refused last month to issue a preliminary injunction that would have forced Mississippi officials to allow felons to vote for president.

Lee said the ACLU is ‘‘not likely to succeed on the merits of their claims,’’ but he did not dismiss the lawsuit itself.

The ACLU appealed to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, which declined last week to issue a similar emergency injunction.

A motion filed by the secretary of state’s office to dismiss the lawsuit is pending.

Pam Weaver, a spokeswoman for Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, said only that Lee had ruled against the injunction and, ‘‘Therefore, disenfranchised felons will not be able to vote in the 2008 general election.’’

If convicted felons in Mississippi — a state that historically votes Republican in presidential elections — were allowed to vote this year it would likely benefit Democratic Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, Abudu said.

Blacks in Mississippi are incarcerated at a higher rate than whites ‘‘and it’s no secret that African Americans strongly support Obama,’’ Abudu said.

‘‘However, we have not adopted wholesale the argument that felon re-enfranchisement efforts will only help Democrats,’’ she said.

Abudu pointed out that some Republicans — Florida Gov. Charlie Christ and Jack Kemp, a 1996 candidate for vice president and now adviser to GOP presidential candidate John McCain — have supported some efforts to help felons regain the right to vote.

Convicted felons in Mississippi can have their voting rights restored by successfully petitioning the state Legislature to do so, but Abudu has said that’s ‘‘a really arduous task for anybody to have to go through.’’

The Legislature restored voting rights to eight people during its most recent session.

Another lawsuit filed by the ACLU in state court claims there are 10 crimes in the Mississippi constitution that prohibit people from voting, but notes that 21 are listed on the voter registration forms.

Hoseman told The Associated Press last week that there are in fact 11 disenfranchising crimes named in Mississippi statute, but ‘‘the attorney general has expanded them to 21.’’

‘‘There over 300 felonies in Mississippi,’’ Hosemann said.

In the past, Hosemann has advocated adding more felonies to the list of crimes that would prohibit people from voting, including sexual predators, drug dealers and those convicted of kidnapping.