felon voting

Gov. John Bel Edwards signs House Bill 265 to restore voting rights to some felons still on probation or parole during a packed signing ceremony at the Capitol on Thursday, May 31, 2018.

Some 36,000 felons who haven't been in prison for at least the last five years will have the opportunity to register to vote when a new law takes effect March 1.

Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin gave state lawmakers an update on the status of preparations for the new law, which the Legislature approved last year, during a hearing at the Capitol on Friday.

“Obviously, we’ve been hard at work at trying to make the date of March 1. I think we are there," Ardoin, a Republican who doesn't support the change, told the House and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Initial estimates of the number of people who would regain their voting rights were a fraction of the number that the state Department of Corrections now says the law applies to. That's because initial counts only include those who had been incarcerated, but the law is being interpreted to include those who were on probation but never behind bars. 

“We’re getting a lot of calls," Rep. Lance Harris, R-Alexandria said.

But advocates for people who were formerly imprisoned say that the goal should be to register as many people as possible to vote.

“The law that passed last year was incredible," said Bruce Reilly, of Voice of the Experienced.

Ardoin and Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc met last week to hash out details of how the registration will work. Ardoin outlined the multi-step process for legislators on Friday.

It starts with felons obtaining a form from their probation or parole officers that they must deliver to local registrars of voters.

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"I just want to make sure we make the process as easy and as simple as possible,” said Rep. Gary Carter, D-New Orleans. “One of the concerns I’ve had is the delays in the process.”

Ardoin said he doesn't plan a large outreach effort and instead expects independent advocacy groups to lead efforts to notify felons who can regain their right to vote.

The legislation restoring voting rights to some felons narrowly passed the GOP-controlled state House last year, after years of unsuccessful tries.

"They pay their taxes, but they don't even get a chance to vote for you as their representative or any other person," said Rep. Pat Smith, a Baton Rouge Democrat who authored the bill, implored of other members in the chamber during the hour-long debate. "All we're trying to do is give them the right to vote — most of them say — before they die."

The bill's unlikely passage didn't come easy. It was rejected twice in the House earlier in the same session, before it passed on its third attempt. Due to a technical change, it had to win the majority of the House’s approval a second time as lawmakers were preparing to end the session early.

The state Constitution prohibits people “under an order of imprisonment” on a felony conviction from voting. A 1976 law expanded that to people convicted of felonies and still on probation or parole.

That law was already facing a challenge in court.

More than 70,000 Louisiana residents are on probation or parole for felony crimes.

Checo Yancy, who advocates on behalf of formerly incarcerated people, such as himself, attended Friday’s hearing on the roll out of the new law. Yancy was sentenced to life behind bars for felony crimes in 1984 but has been released on parole since 2003. Without a legal change, he would never regain the right to vote.

“I just want to get my voting rights,” he told the House panel Friday. “I pay my taxes and do everything I’m supposed to do.”

Follow Elizabeth Crisp on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.