Walter_Stern

Louisiana currently strips 71,000 residents of their right to vote because they are on probation or parole following a felony conviction. This practice hits African-Americans hardest. More broadly, it violates the rights all Louisianans are guaranteed under the state’s 1974 Constitution.

Fortunately, elected officials have an opportunity to begin remedying this injustice through a bill before the Legislature. That bill, which state Rep. Patricia Haynes Smith, D-Baton Rouge, filed as HB 265, would reduce the time that probationers and parolees would have their voting rights suspended.

This is a critical step toward honoring the spirit of the state’s constitution. As my research demonstrates, the 1974 Constitution dramatically expanded individual rights. In short, it gave legal weight to the civil rights movement. I drew upon this research in an amicus brief that I filed with other historians to support Voice of the Experienced (VOTE)’s legal challenge to Louisiana’s disfranchisement of probationers and parolees. 

Since the Louisiana Court of Appeal for the First Circuit rejected that challenge last week, there is a pressing need for legislative action to uphold the constitution.

Our brief examines the 1974 Constitution through the eyes of the voters who ratified it. We reviewed information available to voters before the April 1974 ratification vote, statements from the constitution’s supporters and critics, and post-election analyses of voter behavior. Our findings were clear: the voters who approved the constitution intended it to expand individual rights in general and voting rights in particular, including for those on probation and parole.

The 1974 Constitution replaced the 1921 Constitution, which was a Jim Crow framework that restricted voting rights to maintain white supremacy. It did this in part by permanently disfranchising individuals with felony convictions who had not received pardons. Since the state routinely convicted African Americans unfairly, this and other provisions ruthlessly suppressed black voting. By 1922, Louisiana had only 598 registered black voters.

The 1974 Constitution made a stark break from this past by codifying a new, expansive conception of rights. The key provision in relation to HB 265 permits the state to suspend voting rights only while a person is “under an order of imprisonment for conviction of a felony.”

Archival materials indicate that the voters in 1974 would have had almost no access to information suggesting that the constitution would prevent probationers or parolees from voting. Rather, available information either directly or indirectly stated that the constitution enfranchised individuals with felony convictions upon their release from prison.

Consider, for example, the guide that the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana distributed statewide in February 1974. Noting a general expansion of “Individual Rights,” PAR stated that the proposed constitution extended the right vote to all those not currently incarcerated. A Louisiana League of Women Voters pamphlet similarly explained that the constitution “guarantees every citizen fundamental rights,” including the “RIGHT TO VOTE.” The largest Crescent City group to support the constitution also believed it guaranteed voting rights for the formerly incarcerated, as did one of the constitution’s fiercest critics: the Metropolitan Crime Commission of New Orleans.

Released felons could get voting rights back under measure advancing to full Louisiana House

These perceptions mirrored broader observations that the constitution expanded individual rights. The Louisiana Catholic Conference endorsed the constitution because its Declaration of Rights “was the most advanced in the South and possibly the nation.” African-Americans, whose support was critical to the constitution’s passage, supported it because it expanded voting rights.

The 1974 Constitution responded and contributed to the civil rights revolution, which extended rights to numerous groups previously excluded from full citizenship. The right to vote for formerly incarcerated individuals was among those rights that Louisiana affirmed with the constitution’s ratification.

HB 265 moves Louisiana closer to upholding its constitution and righting a historical wrong. While the bill continues to unnecessarily limit the voting rights of those formerly incarcerated, it is nevertheless a significant step toward a more just future.

New Orleans native Walter C. Stern is a historian and assistant professor of Educational Policy Studies at University of Wisconsin–Madison. He is the author of "Race and Education in New Orleans: Creating the Segregated City, 1764-1960."