A bid to restore voting rights to some of Louisiana's convicted felons still serving probation and parole neared final legislative passage Monday, in a surprise turnaround after years of defeat.
The Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee advanced House Bill 265 after senators on the committee spurned a move by Republican Sen. Jim Fannin of Jonesboro to kill the bill.
Louisiana's 1974 constitution allows suspension of voting rights for people who are "under an order of imprisonment" for a felony. A law passed two years later specified that people on probation or parole for a felony are included in that definition, leaving some unable to ever vote again after incarceration.
The House-backed proposal would allow someone on probation or parole for a felony to register to vote after being out of prison for five years.
"I just think five years is too soon. I think 10 would be more appropriate. I'm not for never having that right," Fannin said. But he added: "It's the greatest privilege that we have."
Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, the New Orleans Democrat who chairs the committee, read from a letter of support that described people getting discouraged because they can't participate in a right that is "fundamental to our democracy."
Fannin's bid to kill the bill got support from Sen. Mike Walsworth, a West Monroe Republican. But Peterson and three other Democrats refused to support the move. After that 4-2 vote against killing the proposal, the committee sent it to the Senate floor without objection.
The bill's continued advancement was unexpected this session.
Democratic Rep. Patricia Smith of Baton Rouge has proposed for years to allow some restoration of voting rights for ex-felons, only to see the bill fail. After three floor votes this session, she won House support for the proposal.
If passed by the Senate, the change would take effect on March 1, 2019.
More than 70,000 Louisiana residents are on probation or parole for felony crimes. It's unclear how many would meet the criteria under Smith's bill.
Supporters of restoring voting rights have challenged the current law in court, but they've been unsuccessful. However, even as he upheld current law, a district judge called it unfair to keep thousands from voting if they're working, paying taxes and following the law.