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Reeves ignores racist history of state’s felony voting ban with vetoes

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Gov. Reeves infrastructure
Gov. Tate Reeves at press conference (screen grab from Live on governor's Facebook page).

Gov. Tate Reeves has been vocal in his opposition to the teaching of critical race theory and his support of the nation’s and state’s “patriotic” history.

Critical race theory, normally taught at the college level, explores the impact of race on various aspects of society. Opponents, though, say critical race theory is an effort to divide the country along racial lines. While opposing critical race theory, the Republican Reeves has long advocated for the teaching of “patriotic” history or history that portrays the state and nation in a positive light.

Reeves, a self-proclaimed “numbers guy” who worked in banking and finance before entering politics in his late 20s, offered a history lesson recently when vetoing a bill that would ensure people whose felony convictions were expunged would regain their right to vote.

“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,” Reeves wrote in his veto message. “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.”

Granted, the loss of voting rights for those convicted of felonies was once common in America. But most states — at least 40 of them — now restore voting rights to people convicted of felonies at some point after they complete their sentence.

And perhaps people convicted of felonies in ancient Rome and Greece also lost their voting rights. Perhaps, a question for the governor is whether the slaves in ancient Rome and Greece could vote.

In Mississippi, the issue of felony disenfranchisement intersects with the state’s sordid history of slavery and systematic racism. The narrative of the day made it clear that felony disenfranchisement was among a litany of provisions placed in Mississippi’s 1890 Constitution to keep African Americans from voting.

At the time, the Mississippi Supreme Court said the disfranchisement of felons was an effort “to obstruct the exercise of the franchise by the negro race” by targeting “the offenses to which its weaker members were prone.” The provision’s intent was the same as the poll tax, the literacy test and other Jim Crow-era provisions that sought to prevent African Americans from voting.

Heck, murder and rape — the two crimes that would be disenfranchising if any were — were not listed in the 1890 Constitution as disenfranchising. They were added much later, in the 1960s.

While most states have moved on from lifetime bans on voting for people convicted of felonies, Mississippi holds tightly to the process placed in its 1890 Constitution. Under that process, a person either has to obtain a gubernatorial pardon or approval by a two-thirds vote of both chambers of the Legislature to regain the right to vote.

Because of that difficult process, Mississippi leads the nation in percentage of residents who have lost their right to vote. This past session, the Legislature passed bills restoring voting rights to only five Mississippians. Reeves opted not to sign those bills, instead allowing them to become law without his signature.

The bill Reeves did veto would have clarified that people whose felony convictions are expunged by a judge also would regain the right to vote. It should be pointed out only a limited number of crimes under specified conditions are eligible for expungement.

At any rate, some jurisdictions are restoring voting rights when crimes are expunged. Others are not. The bill was an attempt to clarify what many said was the Legislature’s intent — to restore voting rights when crimes were expunged.

But Reeves said to restore the rights, the state Constitution needs to be amended through first legislative action and then a vote of the people.

There are legal experts who agree with Reeves’ assessment that a change to the Constitution is needed to bypass the Legislature or a gubernatorial pardon to restore voting rights. Others do not believe a change to the Constitution is required to do so.

Still, Reeves used the occasion of the veto to brandish his version of history, which was absent the racial components surrounding Mississippi’s felony disenfranchisement rules.

When the Legislature debated a bill that supporters said would prohibit the teaching of critical race theory in Mississippi classrooms, some voiced concerns that passage of the anti-critical race theory bill would prevent the teaching of the impact of race on the state’s and nation’s history.

Supporters of the anti-critical race theory bill said it was not their intent to downplay the impact of race.

But Reeves, who signed the critical race theory bill and who touts the importance of teaching “patriotic” history, seems intent on ignoring the racial component of the state’s felony disenfranchisement provision.

This article first appeared on Mississippi Today and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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