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Voter rights, access to be forefront of Mississippi Democratic convention

Photo by SuperTalk Mississippi News

The Mississippi Democratic Party will hold its annual convention on Saturday with a full agenda at hand.

The party – which has not won a statewide election since former Attorney General Jim Hood was elected to a fourth term in 2015 – is in the middle of a bit of a transformation process coming off the heels of a tumultuous tenure that ended in litigation with former chair Tyree Irving. Recently implemented chair State Rep. Cheikh Taylor is pleased with the strides the party has made over the last 10 months, including the closest gubernatorial race Mississippi Democrats have seen in over two decades.

“The Democratic party was hemorrhaging, and there was an executive decision by committee members to change leadership,” Taylor recounted to his selection last July. “I didn’t seek nomination for it. Someone thought it was necessary to throw me a live hand grenade and I caught it. And I’m glad I did.”

Topping the list of priorities this weekend when Democrats from all 82 counties convene in Jackson will be electing a new executive committee. Then, attention will be turned toward the party’s platform for this cycle. The proposed plan released going into the convention includes expanding Medicaid, further funding for public K-12 schools, giving teachers pay raises, upping the minimum wage to $15 per hour, and implementing initiatives to create more affordable housing amid record inflation.

According to Taylor, one of the biggest issues Democrats need to discuss is how to advance legislation that would restore voting rights on a broader basis post-incarceration.

Mississippi historically has had a piecemeal approach when it comes to disenfranchisement, in which someone who has paid their debt to society must contact a local representative or senator and ask them to introduce a voting restoration bill on their behalf. On average, hundreds of suffrage bills are filed with around eight to 10 being approved. In some sessions, such as 2023, no suffrage bills are approved by lawmakers.

“This is the most convoluted process,” Taylor said. “The process of someone who paid their debt to society should be a programmatic restoration of voting rights, especially for nonviolent offenders.”

As for the crimes that result in one losing their right to vote, there were 10 felonies – including bribery, theft, and arson – listed in the Mississippi Constitution. In 1968, murder and rape were added. Contrary to the party’s current belief, Hood expanded that list to 22 crimes in 2009, resulting in criticism over seemingly minor crimes – including tree larceny and writing a bad check for as little as $100 – that can result in disenfranchisement.

“I don’t condone anyone going on another’s property and cutting down their trees, but why is that an issue to lose your voting rights? Another one is $100 bad check … In my mind, this is probably single mothers writing these bad checks to feed their children and yet we penalize them with a felony, incarceration at times, and then we strip them of their voting rights,” Taylor said. “I think anyone can see that there’s an association with some minor criminal, nonviolent activity to stripping voting rights.”

While Democrats and some Republicans have expressed their dismay in recent years with the current process, they have not been able to push a broader suffrage bill across the finish line. During this year’s now-ended session, the GOP-heavy House passed legislation that would have allowed automatic restoration of voting rights for anyone convicted of theft, obtaining money or goods for false pretense, bigamy, forgery, or any crimes interpreted as disenfranchising in later Attorney General opinions. However, it died in a Senate committee led by far-right Angela Hill, and even if it would have passed all the way through, it’s unclear if Gov. Tate Reeves would have signed off on it. The Republican has, so far, been inconsistent when it comes to approving individual suffrage bills.

On top of making the restoration of voting rights a priority, Taylor wants to see the party widen the conversation on increasing voters’ access. He used the example of Australia, a country that always holds elections on Saturday. In Mississippi, elections are typically held on Tuesday, which is a workday for most.

“Australia is doing it the right way, and I know that might sound funny coming from a guy who looks like me and is chairman of the Democratic party,” Taylor said. “But for about a week or more, [Australia] has an uplifting and engaging, music-filled celebration to go use your right to vote. Here in Mississippi, we all agree that it’s a bit of a drudgery. While we have pride in our vote most often, there are intentional stopgaps to make sure that it becomes increasingly more difficult.”

Some of those stopgaps, according to Taylor, are Mississippi’s lack of early voting, no-excuse absentee voting, and online voter registration.

Upon nailing down the party’s platform this weekend and discussing any other issues that might come up, Mississippi delegates will deliver the state party’s agenda to the Democratic National Convention, set for Aug. 19-22.

“The whole point is that every state has its nuances. Every state is different, and we want to make sure that the values of Mississippians are represented on a national level,” Taylor concluded. “We’re excited about [the DNC] because it’s going to help push the agenda to turn Mississippi purple if not blue.”

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