LEILA FADEL, HOST:
Most states have moved in recent years to automatically restore voting rights to people who complete their prison sentences. Where that doesn't happen, civil rights groups are suing on behalf of ex-felons. One of those cases is in Mississippi. It's challenging a lifetime ban there on voting for people convicted of certain crimes, citing a discriminatory system put in place during the Jim Crow era. NPR's Debbie Elliott reports.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: A heated race for governor is underway in Mississippi, but Dennis Hopkins won't be voting this week.
DENNIS HOPKINS: I've never voted in my life because by the time I got in trouble, I was not even at the age to vote.
ELLIOTT: Under Mississippi law, Hopkins is barred from voting because of a grand larceny conviction when he was a young man. He completed his sentence 16 years ago.
HOPKINS: It's horrible. It makes you feel like less of a man, less of a citizen. It makes you feel that your voice is not heard, your thoughts are not heard.
ELLIOTT: Hopkins, now 43, works for the city of Potts Camp, Miss. He's a little league coach, volunteer firefighter and foster parent. And he's a lead plaintiff and one of two class-action lawsuits challenging Mississippi's permanent ban on voting for people convicted of certain felonies. Attorney Paloma Wu with the Southern Poverty Law Center is representing the former felons and argues Mississippi's law is unconstitutional.
PALOMA WU: Automatic lifetime stripping of the right to vote even after you have completed your sentence, repaid your debt to society is cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment.
ELLIOTT: Wu says Mississippi's law is unique - because the only way to get back the right to vote is to enlist the help of the governor or have a special suffrage bill passed in your name through the state legislature with a two-thirds majority. Wu says politicians have unfettered discretion.
WU: What's amazing about particularly the suffrage bill process is you're asking people who are elected officials to decide who gets to vote and who doesn't.
ELLIOTT: Wu says it's an arbitrary and racially discriminatory process rooted in the state's 1890 constitution adopted with the stated intent to, quote, "secure to the state of Mississippi white supremacy," according to the journal of the proceedings. Attorney Rob McDuff with the Mississippi Center for Justice calls it a great tragedy of Mississippi history.
ROB MCDUFF: The white leadership of the state gathered to write a new constitution with the avowed purpose of taking the vote away from African Americans who had attained it in the wake of the Civil War, the abolition of slavery and the passage of the 15th Amendment.
ELLIOTT: Newly freed black people were the majority and considered a threat to the white power structure. McDuff says the document named a set of felonies for disenfranchisement - crimes the framers believed to be primarily committed by African Americans and poor white people.
MCDUFF: It's a bizarre collection that includes bribery, theft, arson, false pretenses, perjury, forgery, embezzlement and bigamy.
ELLIOTT: In the 1960s, the state added serious offenses like rape and murder. Still, Attorney Wu argues, it remains a vestige of Jim Crow that should go by the way of the poll tax.
WU: We've been sort of lawsuit by lawsuit, movement by movement in the last hundred years trying to make our way back to where African Americans in Mississippi can have participation in the political process.
ELLIOTT: Republican Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann and Democratic Attorney General Jim Hood declined to comment on the ongoing litigation. Both officials are running for higher office in Tuesday's election. The Mississippi lawsuits are part of a broader national movement to rethink felon voting bans.
KHALILAH BROWN-DEAN: I think we are finally reconciling those historical misdeeds with our contemporary realities.
ELLIOTT: Political scientist Khalilah Brown-Dean of Quinnipiac University in Connecticut tracks state policy on felon voting rights. She says the landscape has shifted in the last 20 years as more states pass reenfranchisement laws or citizens push to automatically restore the vote to ex-felons, such as last year's referendum in Florida. Increasingly, she says, it has become a legal question. The ACLU recently sued Minnesota over denying voting rights to people on probation. A federal appeals court in December will consider whether the lawsuits in Mississippi will proceed. Brown-Dean says there's a high bar.
BROWN-DEAN: We use the language of a right to vote, but there is no affirmative constitutional right to vote in this country. Because states set the time, the place and the manner of elections, they then determine who is eligible to vote.
ELLIOTT: For Dennis Hopkins in Potts Camp, Miss., it's about getting a fair shot at fully participating in civic life.
HOPKINS: Doesn't everybody deserve a second chance?
ELLIOTT: Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Jackson, Miss.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.