Ashanti Witherspoon served 27 years at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola for armed robbery and has been on parole since 1999, but because Louisiana law bars him from voting until his parole expires in 2045, he was on hand at a Baton Rouge appeals court Wednesday where documents were filed challenging the law's legality.

The 1976 state law prohibits roughly 71,000 felons on probation and parole from voting.

"I've campaigned for people, but I can't vote," Witherspoon, 68, of Baker, said inside the state 1st Circuit Court of Appeal.

Witherspoon is a pastor, minister, motivational speaker and husband.

"We'll sit down and discuss the issues," he said of his wife during election times. "I drive her to the place where she votes."

Witherspoon is one of the plaintiffs who filed suit against the state in an effort to have the four-decade-old law struck down.

State District Judge Tim Kelley reluctantly upheld the law in March, telling Witherspoon and his fellow plaintiffs that he agreed with them but could not bend the law.

The 1974 Louisiana Constitution prohibited people "under an order of imprisonment" for the conviction of a felony from voting. The 1976 state law that is under attack expanded the definition, saying that felons on probation and parole cannot vote.

The written arguments filed Wednesday at the 1st Circuit claim Louisiana is unconstitutionally disenfranchising tens of thousands of citizens who are on probation and parole following a felony conviction.

"This case concerns the fundamental right of probationers and parolees who live in the community to participate in its political life," wrote the attorneys for Voice of the Ex-Offender, or VOTE, and eight individual plaintiffs, including Witherspoon.

VOTE and the individual plaintiffs contend the time spent "under an order of imprisonment" does not include time spent on probation or parole.

The state's attorneys maintain that felons on probation or parole are still under an order of imprisonment because they can be sent back to prison if they violate the terms or conditions of their probation or parole.

"Today, more than 71,000 parolees and probationers are denied the ballot," the plaintiffs' attorneys argued Wednesday. "The impact is profound: Louisiana disenfranchises more than 3 percent of its residents, or one out of every 33 adults, because of a felony conviction. Sixty-four percent of the affected population are not in prison but living in the community, a rate almost three times the national average. African-Americans are significantly disproportionately impacted.

"People may remain ineligible to vote for years — some the rest of their lives — after they have served their time in prison."

The plaintiffs' lawyers are Bill Quigley, of the Loyola University New Orleans College of Law; several lawyers with the Washington, D.C.-based Advancement Project; VOTE attorney Ilona Maria Prieto; Anna Lellelid, of the Louisiana Community Law Office; and New Orleans lawyer Ron Wilson.

The state will be next to file its written arguments in the case. The court can rule either based on the written arguments or hold a hearing. 

Follow Joe Gyan Jr. on Twitter, @JoeGyanJr.