Felons on probation and parole are one step closer to having their voting rights restored under legislation advanced to the full House on Wednesday.
Baton Rouge Democratic Rep. Patricia Smith’s House Bill 265 would allow felons on probation and parole to vote after a five year cleansing period following their release from incarceration.
The measure was reported favorably by the House and Governmental Affairs committee on a 7-2 vote.
HB265 would alter a 1976 Louisiana state law that expanded the definition of “under order of imprisonment” listed in the 1974 Louisiana Constitution to include felons on probation and parole, instead of only those incarcerated.
The constitutionality of the 1976 law is being challenged in VOTE v. Louisiana in the Louisiana First Circuit Court of Appeal. Nineteenth Judicial District Court Judge Tim Kelley, of Baton Rouge, upheld the state law in March 2017. But Kelley said he supported the plaintiff’s position. Oral arguments in the appeals case were heard in late February and a decision is expected to come down in the next two weeks, said Bruce Reilly, deputy director of Voice of the Experienced, or VOTE.
Reilly, a felon released in 2005, said the right to vote helps spur felon rehabilitation. Reilly was able to vote in Rhode Island, his then-home, beginning in 2007 after the state passed felon voting reforms in 2006. He lost that right when he moved to New Orleans in 2011 to attend Tulane Law School.
Reilly said he won’t regain the right to vote until he’s 65 years old, and his only means of exercising that right until then would be to leave Louisiana. He said the bill isn’t only about voting, but about preventing the disenfranchisement of felons and ensuring they reintegrate into the community successfully. He said voting with his young daughter in 2010 gave him a sense of civic pride.
“It was very powerful. It gave me a sense of being part of the folks that are doing the right thing out here. I spent most of my life up until then part of a different community, many people who were doing the wrong thing. It felt really good and really encouraging,” he said.
Retired Orleans Parish Criminal District Court Judge Miriam Waltzer said the 1976 state law muddied the original intentions of the 1974 state constitution and continues to punish released felons instead of extending forgiveness. She said the constitution’s original voting limitations were only intended to apply to incarcerated felons and those housed in mental institutions.
Waltzer said while certain rights, like the right to possess a firearm or other weapon, are also limited for felons on parole or probation, there’s a distinct difference between the right to bear arms and the right to vote.
“What is the difference between a weapon and voting? A weapon is dangerous, and a weapon shouldn’t be possessed by a person who is a convicted felon. But to vote, who does it hurt? That is an obligation that we have as a citizens. It is not a privilege, it’s an absolute right,” Waltzer said.
The Louisiana Secretary of State’s office raised concerns about how it would all work if the bill becomes law. Assistant Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin said none of the provisions outlined in Smith’s measure determine how the Department of Corrections and Secretary of State’s office would coordinate tracking which felons are eligible to vote, or what documentation they would need to present to register.
A separate notification system would need to be developed to suspend voting rights again if the felon breaches his or her parole or probation sentence.
Provisions for this process were outlined in a similar felon voting rights bill brought by Rep. Barry Ivey, R-Central. Ivey’s House Bill 417 was voted down by the House and Governmental Affairs committee shortly after Smith’s passed.
Ivey’s bill would have instituted a similar five-year holding period and a community service requirement before non-violent felons could regain the right to vote.
Ivey, one of two representatives who voted against the bill, said he rejected Smith’s legislation to give his measure a chance. Committees typically don’t advance two bills on the same subject matter.
Ivey told The Advocate he believes establishing a reasonable hurdle to voting rights restoration, like community service hours, will be needed to get the support of more conservative members on the floor. At a minimum, he said Smith’s bill will need to address the Secretary of State’s concerns to have a better shot of passing.