Gov. Reeves Vetoes Suffrage Bill, Keeping Jim Crow-Era Voting Policy in Place

a photo of Mississippi governor Tate Reeves speaking at a microphone
Calling felony voter disenfranchisement “an animating principle of the social contract at the heart of every great republic,” Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves vetoed a bill that would have returned voting rights to residents whose disenfranchising crimes are expunged. Photo by Ashton Pittman

A Jim Crow-era policy meant to prevent Black citizens from voting will remain intact after Gov. Tate Reeves vetoed a bill to restore voting rights to people who have disenfranchising crimes expunged.

“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,” the governor said in a formal April 21 veto message to the Mississippi Senate as he vetoed Senate Bill 2536. “In America, such laws date back to the colonies and the eventual founding of our Republic. 

“Since statehood, in one form or another, Mississippi law has recognized felony disenfranchisement, both before and after the United States Constitution expressly authorized the practice.”

Jim Crow Law Targeted Black Voting

Mississippi’s current felony-disenfranchisement law date back to 1890, when the State adopted its Jim Crow state constitution. The white post-Reconstruction lawmakers of the era selected disenfranchising crimes based on the ones they thought Black men were more likely to commit.

James K. Vardaman, a racist governor and senator who served in the Mississippi House at the time of the 1890 constitution’s adoption, explained that “Mississippi’s constitutional convention of 1890 was held for no other purpose than to eliminate the n—er from politics” and that “in Mississippi, we have in our constitution legislated against the racial peculiarities of the negro.” 

James K Vardaman
James K. Vardaman, a former Mississippi speaker of the House, governor and U.S. senator, seen here in 1912, was known as “The Great White Chief.” He said he and other Mississippi lawmakers designed the 1890 Mississippi State Constitution to “eliminate” Black voting power. Photo courtesy U.S. Library of Congress.

In 1896, the Mississippi Supreme Court issued an opinion saying that the state’s 1890 constitutional convention sought “to obstruct the exercise of the franchise by the negro race” and that Black people’s “criminal members” were “given rather to furtive offenses than to the robust crimes of whites.” Therefore, the justices said, “the convention discriminated against … the offenses to which its weaker members were prone.”

“Burglary, theft, arson, and obtaining money under false pretenses were declared to be disqualifications, while robbery and murder and other crimes in which violence was the principle ingredient were not,” the court said in 1896. State lawmakers did not add murder and rape to the list of disenfranchising crimes until 1968. Despite continuing disparities in his own state, Gov. Reeves claimed last year that “there is not systemic racism in America.”

Bill Passed With Little Opposition

Felony voter disenfranchisement remains part of the Mississippi constitution today, and studies show that it continues to disproportionately deprive Black Mississippians of the right to vote just as Vardaman and others intended. Senate Bill 2536 would not have changed that, but would have clarified that those who are able to get their convictions expunged could regain their suffrage by submitting a voter-registration application and proof of expungement to their county registrar.

“Just to be clear, this doesn’t add any crimes that can be expunged,” Sen. Daniel Sparks, R-Belmont, said on the Senate floor on March 30. “It just clarifies that if someone gets an expungement … the law currently reads they’re restored to the same status they were when the crime occurred. And our goal is just to make sure it also affects their disenfranchising event since it’s now been erased.”

a photo of the Mississippi Capitol building with a gold eagle atop its dome
Both chambers of the Mississippi Legislature passed Senate Bill 2536 overwhelmingly, with only two senators voting no. Photo by Ashton Pittman

“That’s correct, and that’s exactly what the purpose of this was, for someone who has had their record expunged and don’t have any other disenfranchising crimes on record, the purpose of expungement is to put you back in the position you were in before,” Sen. Jeremy England, R-Vancleave, the bill’s primary sponsor, told Sparks. “And if you were able to vote before, it stands to reason that you should be able to vote after you’ve had your record expunged.”

Senate Bill 2536 also would have created a public registry of “offenders whose crimes involved the embezzlement or misappropriation of public funds,” where their names would be kept for five years, during which time they would be barred from holding public office. Lawmakers added the section on restoring voting rights post-expungement during conference between the House and Senate.

The final version of the bill passed the Mississippi House with support from 119 of the chamber’s 122 members. One Democrat and two Republicans did not vote. In the Senate, the bill passed 48-2, with Sens. Joseph M. Seymour, R-Vancleave, and Jeff Tate, R-Meridian, voting no. Two Republican senators did not vote.

Legislature Could Override Veto

The Mississippi Legislature has not yet shared the governors’ most recent veto messages on its public site. The Mississippi Free Press requested a copy of the message, which Mississippi Today previously reported on. In the message, Gov. Reeves indicated his support for the public-registry portion of the bill, calling it “much needed.” The suffrage section, however, was “completely unrelated,” he said.

Under Mississippi law, voters convicted of disenfranchising crimes may only regain the right to vote in two ways: either by obtaining a pardon from the governor or by a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to restore an individual’s suffrage. The Legislature restored suffrage to just five Mississippians during the 2022 legislative session.

a photo of Jeramey Anderson wearing a red tie and black suit
“I look forward to voting in favor of overriding this veto when session reconvenes,” Rep. Jeramey Anderson, D-Moss Point, said. Photo by Ashton Pittman.

“No provision of the Mississippi Constitution authorizes a person convicted of a disenfranchising crime to regain the right to vote upon expungement of the conviction for such crime,” Reeves argued in his veto message. If the Legislature “wishes to create an additional avenue to return suffrage to persons convicted of disenfranchising crimes,” he added, they could do so by amending the Mississippi Constitution with a two-thirds vote of the members of each house and a majority vote of the people.

“With all due respect, Senate Bill 2536 is not an attempt to ‘clarify’ existing law, but rather an attempt to affect a significant and unwise change to Mississippi’s voting laws,” the governor said in his veto message. “Thus, I am compelled to veto Senate Bill 2536.”

The Legislature could overturn the governor’s veto during its next session if leaders choose to do so.

“I look forward to voting in favor of overriding this veto when session reconvenes,” Rep. Jeramey Anderson, D-Moss Point, said in response to the governor’s veto on April 22.

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