JACKSON, Miss. — The League of Women Voters of the US, the League of Women Voters of Mississippi, the Mississippi Center for Justice, One Voice, Mississippi Votes, Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP, Black Voters Matter, Mississippi Poor People’s Campaign, Reaching and Educating for Community Hope (RECH) Foundation, Strong Arms of Mississippi, Mississippi Prison Reform Coalition, People’s Advocacy Institute, and the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, filed an amicus brief late Wednesday in Hopkins v. Watson, urging the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit to declare Mississippi’s lifetime felony disenfranchisement law — Section 241 — cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment to the US Constitution. The groups are represented by pro bono attorneys Matthew Sloan, Lauren Aguiar, Shaud Tavakoli, Daniel Bleiberg, Andrew Karp, and Kathleen Shelton.
In August 2023, a three-judge panel of the US Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit declared unconstitutional Section 241, which permanently strips the right to vote from anyone convicted of one of a specific list of felonies. Section 241 permanently strips the right to vote from thousands of Mississippians who have served their sentences. As the case proceeds through the appeal, the law remains in effect.
The coalition of voting rights, civil rights, and racial justice groups filing the amicus brief seek to ensure Mississippi’s racist felony disenfranchisement law is struck down.
According to the amicus brief, by depriving citizens of the fundamental right to vote for life, Mississippi’s lifetime felony disenfranchisement law constitutes an exceptionally harsh violation under the Eighth Amendment because voting is fundamental to life as an American citizen. Further, as highlighted in the brief, Section 241 was specifically designed to disenfranchise Black men, and, to this day, it disproportionately impacts Black Mississippians. The groups argue that Mississippi stands as one of the outliers in the nation in enforcing such a severe disenfranchisement law.
“Mississippi’s felony disenfranchisement law is a sad reminder of the racist origins of our state that we must confront and eliminate,” said Peg Ciraldo, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Mississippi. “Since the state of Mississippi refuses to eliminate the racism in our voting laws but instead embraces it, the League and our partners will continue to fight to root out that racism wherever we can until everyone has equal access to political power.”
“Felony disenfranchisement laws have no place in a true democracy, and laws like Mississippi’s Section 241 demonstrate that Jim Crow voting laws were not completely rooted out with the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965,” said Celina Stewart, chief counsel and senior director of advocacy and litigation at the League of Women Voters of the US. “There is still so much work to be done to achieve true equity in voting rights, especially where racism, political power, and the criminal legal system intersect, and the League of Women Voters is proud to stand with our partners in this critical case.”
“When a state violates the rights of Americans by unjustifiably, automatically stripping them of their right to vote for life—for felling another’s tree or writing a bad check for $100—the federal courts are state citizens’ only protectors,” said Paloma Wu, deputy director of impact litigation at the Mississippi Center for Justice. “This case was filed in 2018, and our state has had 133 years to stop inflicting lifelong civic death on its citizens after sentence completion. Mississippi will not act unless ordered to.”
"The right to vote is fundamental to personal dignity and preservation of our democracy," said Carroll Rhodes, general counsel of the Mississippi State Conference of the NAACP. "It is high time that Mississippi's discriminatory dehumanizing disenfranchisement provision be finally laid to rest."
“Voting is at the heart of civic life,” said Danyelle Holmes, executive director of the Mississippi Poor Peoples’ Campaign. “Permanently stripping away a person’s right to vote is an exceptionally harsh punishment that reverberates beyond the ballot box. We joined this case because we believe our country benefits from more civic engagement, and this law guarantees less.”
“If we care about public safety, we should care about the right to vote for formerly incarcerated people,” said Dr. William Sansing, a formerly incarcerated Mississippian, policy advocate with the Mississippi Prison Reform Coalition, licensed clinical counselor, and author of Beyond Prison. “Restoring voting rights for people with felony convictions can improve public safety. Voting gives people a sense of worth - that their voices can be heard in the political process. This is very important to people like myself who re-enter society. We want to feel as if we are positively contributing to our communities, our families, and our lives."
"As a formerly incarcerated woman in Mississippi who served her time, I am denied my right to vote," said Denise Daquigan, a formerly incarcerated fellow with the Mississippi Prison Reform Coalition. “Therefore, at the age of 72, I cannot call myself a full citizen. The right to vote is the most important tenet of my citizenship.”
“We register thousands of Mississippians to vote every year, and we’re often asked about Mississippi’s automatic lifetime voting ban,” said Arekia Bennett-Scott, executive director of Mississippi Votes. “It is impossible to explain—I would challenge anyone to try—why Mississippi takes peoples’ right to vote away for life, past sentence completion, when Mississippi was restored to its status as a state in our country after committing crimes against America and its people many times more heinous than any individual could ever commit. Democracy in the American South is the result of redemption. Mississippi’s automatic lifetime voting ban is a vestige of the rebellion.”
“The right to vote free from racial discrimination is fundamental,” said Amir Badat, Voting Special Counsel of the Legal Defense Fund. “Section 241 is a Jim Crow law which Mississippi specifically designed to disenfranchise Black people. Today, Black Mississippians continue to be disproportionately harmed by this provision. To permanently remove Black people’s rights through an intentionally discriminatory law is an unconstitutional and unjustifiably harsh form of punishment.”
“We have seen the impacts of Mississippi’s lifetime voting ban in action through our election protection work,” said Nsombi Lambright, executive director of One Voice. “The state of Mississippi explicitly chose to permanently remove Black men from the electorate when it passed this law and is choosing to disproportionately disenfranchise Black Mississippians today by continuing to enforce it. As long as the state continues to not protect the Black community, we will be here to fight back.”
“Mississippi's felony lifetime disenfranchisement laws that were adopted as a part of the state's 1890 constitution, are a product of the Jim Crow era designed to ensure that certain marginalized communities, like Black Communities, would have limited voting and political power,” said Carol Blackmon, senior state organizing manager at Black Voters Matter-Mississippi. “These laws must be eradicated to ensure that all Mississippians have equal voting rights, and Black Voters Matter will continue to work tirelessly with our state partners to promote expanded democracy, power-building, and increased voting rights despite assaults on voting rights by state legislators across the South.”
“The problem in Mississippi is the problem of the color and class line, and this is most evident in Mississippi’s lifetime ban on the right to vote for Black, indigenous, and poor-wealth people that have survived incarceration,” said Rukia Lumumba, executive director of the People’s Advocacy Institute. “A civilized state is determined by the strength of its democracy. Mississippi will never join the civilized world until it ends its century-old practices of denying the right to vote to hundreds of thousands of formerly incarcerated Black, indigenous, and low-wealth citizens. It is time for a change.”
“As someone who has spent decades on the frontline advocating for the restoration of voting rights, it is disheartening to witness a situation where Mississippians are being treated as if their citizenship is conditional,” said Pauline Rogers, founder of Reaching and Educating for Community Hope (RECH) Foundation. “Because of this deeply flawed legislation, those who have served their time and paid their dues to re-enter society find themselves permanently denied the very right that defines citizenship.”
“I’m an expert on what it takes to turn your life around,” said Terun Moore, co-founder and program director of Strong Arms of Mississippi. “The worst thing you can do is tell someone that there’s nothing they can do to make right what they’ve done wrong. Mississippi’s lifetime voting ban is counterproductive as a tool to increase public safety because its purpose was to keep more Black than white citizens from voting, and it has. It’s a cruel and unjustifiable punishment that the courts must end because Mississippi won’t.”
The full Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals is expected to rehear Hopkins v. Watson on January 23, 2024.
Read a copy of the amicus brief here:
Shannon Augustus | [email protected]
Mandesha Thornton | [email protected]
Phoebe Plagens | [email protected]
Venkayla Haynes | [email protected]
The Latest from the League
LWV of Mississippi filed a lawsuit seeking to expand absentee voting, waive the witness and notarization requirements, and set up a notice and cure process during the COVID-19 pandemic.
JACKSON, Miss. — A federal court has granted a request by Disability Rights Mississippi, the League of Women Voters of Mississippi, and three Mississippi voters to block S.B. 2358 — a newly implemented state law that significantly diminishes access to the ballot for Mississippians who need assistance with voting.
Today the League of Women Voters of Mississippi, Disability Rights Mississippi, and three Mississippi voters filed a federal lawsuit challenging SB 2358, newly passed legislation that significantly diminishes access to the ballot for Mississippians with disabilities. The plaintiffs are represented by Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), Mississippi Center for Justice, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), ACLU-MS and Disability Rights Mississippi (DRMS).