‘They need to give me back what I’ve earned’: Lawsuit targets Mississippi lifetime felon voting ban

Mississippi's disenfranchisement law is one of the strictest in the nation.

Vicki Slater (far left), a Democratic activist, votes at Highland Chapel, a polling place on election day in Madison, MS on November 8, 2016.  CREDIT: Linda Davidson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)
Vicki Slater (far left), a Democratic activist, votes at Highland Chapel, a polling place on election day in Madison, MS on November 8, 2016. CREDIT: Linda Davidson/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

It’s been almost two decades since Dennis Hopkins left prison, having served four years for grand larceny. In that time, he and his wife have had five kids and fostered four others. He’s started his own towing business and has worked as a volunteer firefighter, only leaving when he was elected fire chief of his local department. “I have paid what I owe the state of Mississippi in so many ways,” he says. But he has still never voted.

Mississippi’s disenfranchisement law is one of the strictest in the nation, prohibiting anyone with a felony record from voting for life unless they are able to have their lawmaker sponsor a suffrage bill on their behalf. The process is lengthy and onerous, and has only been completed 14 times in the last five years. As a result, one in ten adults — disproportionately African Americans —  are disenfranchised.

“They need to give me back what I’ve earned,” Hopkins, now 43-year-old, told ThinkProgress Monday.

On Tuesday, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a class action lawsuit, naming Hopkins and five others as lead plaintiffs and seeking to end a policy that it calls racially-biased, unconstitutionally arbitrary, and a violation of the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment. The advocates hope Mississippi can follow advances made in other Southern states, including Alabama and Florida, that have recently taken steps to restore voting rights to some of their non-eligible citizens.

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“I really just am tired of being bullied by the state of Mississippi,” Hopkins said. “I get tired of not having my voice heard… It’s a shame that once you get a felony, that they try to hold it against you for the rest of your life. You can pay your fine and you can do your time, but still you’re never forgiven.”

Dennis Hopkins CREDIT: SPLC
Dennis Hopkins CREDIT: SPLC

Hopkins has tried to get his record expunged to no avail, but even if he were successful, there’s no guarantee that he would be permitted to vote.

Paloma Wu, a staff attorney with the SPLC who is working on the case, said that many ex-felons like Hopkins are left with no options because having a lawmaker sponsor a suffrage bill is not feasible.

“We’ve run into almost nobody who has heard of it,” Wu said. “A lot of us who filed the case, the attorneys are from Mississippi and have lived in Mississippi and do civil rights work, and we’ve never heard of it. And to be totally clear, many legislators have not heard of it.”

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Even if an individual did learn of the process, having a suffrage bill passed requires multiple two-thirds votes in both chambers of the legislature.

Mississippi is one of just four states (Florida, Kentucky, and Iowa also) that permanently ban all convicted felons of voting for life. According to the complaint, Mississippi does not keep records on the total number of citizens who are disenfranchised. “Based on the data that is available, however, it is clear that the state’s lifetime voting ban affects tens of thousands of Mississippi citizens,” the complaint notes. “Between 1994 and 2017, more than 47,000 Mississippi citizens were convicted of disenfranchising offenses.” While the state is only 36.5 percent black, 59 percent of people convicted of disenfranchising offenses between 1994 and 2017 were black.

The lawsuit names Republican Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann as defendant and asks the court to automatically restore voting rights to all Mississippi citizens upon the completion of their sentences. Although Mississippi’s felon disenfranchisement law has been in place since the 1890 Mississippi Constitutional Convention, Wu said the SPLC filed this lawsuit now after seeing advances made in other states.

“There has been a renewed interest in challenging felony disenfranchisement laws,” she said, noting lawsuits in Alabama and Florida. “There have been, in both of those lawsuits, some quite extraordinary decisions that we feel here in Mississippi are leading the way for a state like ours.”

A Florida judge ruled in February that the state’s current clemency process is unconstitutional because of the arbitrary way in which state officials are allowed to “withhold the right to vote from hundreds of thousands of people without any constraints, guidelines or standards,” according to the judge. In November, Florida voters will also have the opportunity to decide on a ballot initiative that would automatically restore voting rights to roughly 1.5 million people.

In Alabama, the Campaign Legal Center challenged the state’s disenfranchisement law in court in 2016. Last year, before the critical special election, the legislature passed and the governor signed a bill defining the “Moral Turpitude” clause in the state constitution, a move that clarified state law and allowed tens of thousands of people to regain their rights. Advocates in Alabama said the legislation was the first step toward overturning a policy they call racist and unconstitutional.

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Last fall, a separate lawsuit was filed against Mississippi’s law, which Wu said the SPLC sees as a complement to their own litigation.

Hopkins is hopeful that the litigation will eventually allow Mississippi to follow the path laid by other red, Southern states.

“Why are you making me pay my entire life for a mistake I made when I was a kid?” he asked. “I have paid what I owe them. I have done everything they’ve asked me to do. Now, it’s my turn to stand up and… say, ‘I’m a citizen.'”