One phrase sums up the issue of expanding felon voting rights in Louisiana: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
The Louisiana Constitution restores voting rights for felons when they're no longer under an order of imprisonment for their conviction. State law defines a condition of probation or parole as a part of that order. Two courts have confirmed the constitutionality of that provision.
This restriction doesn’t sit well with some, so they backed House Bill 265, authored by state Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge, which would allow any felon outside the walls on parole or probation to register to vote five years after release. Louisiana already imposes conventional limits on felon voting. Nineteen other states have the same policy as Louisiana on this issue. Only 13 states now follow the practice what Smith's bill advocates.
Supporters of the measure claim the right to vote helps ex-cons become more civically engaged. The suggestion is that being able to vote will make felons less likely to return to prison. While research indicates greater feelings of engagement in felons who register to vote, studies have failed to demonstrate a link between restoring voting rights and reduced recidivism. In particular, research can’t determine whether increased ability to cast a vote causes a decreased likelihood to reoffend.
Knowing that they can vote doesn’t seem to flip a switch in offenders and suddenly make them better citizens.
Backers of Smith's bill also argue it's unfair not letting ex-offenders, since it denies them participation in the political system. The presence of a few felons on parole or probation at the House of Representatives’ House and Governmental Affairs Committee hearing on the bill puts the lie to that notion. Political participation doesn’t limit itself to voting. It can include many other activities, such as engaging lawmakers.
Scrapping the current limits on voting for felons has no real benefits. If anything, the present law provides a genuine incentive for ex-cons to stay on the straight and narrow. If, as the bill’s advocates assume, parolees or probationers do really value the right to vote, they should be willing to prove themselves during their post-release supervision to earn a visit to the ballot box.
Twice this year, the House wisely turned back Smith's bill, although it came within two votes of passage on the second attempt. The bill might have passed if it had embraced the approach of HB 417 by state Rep. Barry Ivey, R-Central. This would have added completing a 40-hour community service requirement for nonviolent felons still under supervision and their maintaining a clean record for five years to reclaim their voting ability.
A requirement like this would encourage these folks to interact lawfully with society and would invest them more deeply into the community. It might deepen their appreciation of a right they carelessly threw away.
Allowing released felons with incomplete sentences to automatically regain the right to vote is a step backward. If anything, lawmakers should make them do more to get back their ability to cast a ballot.
Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University-Shreveport, where he teaches Louisiana government. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics at www.between-lines.com. When the Louisiana Legislature is in session, he writes about legislation in it at www.laleglog.com. Follow him on Twitter, @jsadowadvocate or write to firstname.lastname@example.org. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.