An activist group filed a class-action lawsuit Friday seeking to restore voting rights to tens of thousands of Louisiana residents serving probation or parole for felony offenses.
The lawsuit, filed in 19th Judicial District Court in Baton Rouge, claims the state is disenfranchising nearly 70,000 citizens by enforcing “unconstitutional laws.”
“Although each of these people are living in the community and doing their best to work, pay taxes and raise children, they are denied this citizenship because they are on probation or parole,” the plaintiff organization, the Voice of the Ex-Offender, said in a release. “The state of Louisiana is telling people following a conviction to stabilize their lives with work and family; however, the state is also sending an anti-social message by denying the opportunity for civic engagement.”
The group said it filed the litigation on the eve of Independence Day to underscore that the plaintiffs are being “denied the most fundamental right of citizenship.”
The lawsuit, which names Gov. John Bel Edwards and Secretary of State Tom Schedler as defendants, takes aim at a law passed in 1976 that altered the definition of who may vote so that it excludes people on probation or parole. The lawsuit claims that law was passed improperly, and that the state Constitution, as written and approved in 1974, actually afforded voting rights to probationers and parolees.
“The Legislature doesn’t have the ability to just change the Constitution,” said Bill Quigley, an attorney for the plaintiffs. He said lawmakers would have been required to hold a referendum to change the law but failed to do so.
“The Louisiana Constitution says that, unless you are under an order of imprisonment, you have the right to vote,” Quigley added.
Ruth Wisher, a spokeswoman for state Attorney General Jeff Landry, said officials were reviewing the lawsuit Friday. “We believe the restrictions on voting rights of convicted felons are constitutional,” she said.
The lawsuit comes just weeks after advocates celebrated the passage of a law known as “Ban the Box,” which prevents state government employers from inquiring about past criminal history on a job application — a measure intended to give ex-convicts a greater chance of re-entering the workforce. But lawmakers in the Louisiana House this year also shot down a bill that would have allowed people on felony probation or parole to vote.
Rep. Barry Ivey, R-Baton Rouge, voted against the measure, House Bill 598, but said he would not be opposed to finding some “middle ground” that allows certain non-violent offenders to regain their voting rights after a waiting period.
“When you commit a crime, you forego your rights,” Ivey said in a telephone interview. “These aren’t the best decision-makers out there to begin with.”
Among the plaintiffs named in the lawsuit is Bruce Reilly, a well-known New Orleans activist who serves as deputy director of the Voice of the Ex-Offender. The lawsuit states that Reilly’s “disenfranchisement is simply a result of moving from Rhode Island to Louisiana to pursue a law degree.”
Reilly, 42, served a dozen years in prison in Rhode Island but, shortly after his release, regained the right to vote in that state thanks to a 2006 constitutional amendment that restored voting rights to ex-convicts on probation and parole. “Despite Bruce’s professional success, his service to the community, national recognition for his work, education and that he pays state and federal taxes, he cannot vote in Louisiana until 2035,” the lawsuit states.
Another plaintiff is Ashanti Witherspoon, a 66-year-old pastor who lives in Baker and remains on parole. Witherspoon, a mentor and life coach who participates in the Baton Rouge Violence Elimination Program, served 25 years in prison following an armed robbery and shootout with law enforcement.
Since his release, Witherspoon has spoken to students about the perils of gang violence and, in 2014, met with President Barack Obama’s staff about voting rights for former prisoners.
“Your citizenship is predicated upon the fact that you’re eligible to register to vote,” said Norris Henderson, the executive director of the Voice of the Ex-Offender. “As long as you can’t vote, you cannot be considered a citizen.”