Louisiana is one step closer to restoring voting rights to thousands of people convicted of felonies who are on probation or parole, after a years-long effort at the State Capitol got a jolt of momentum last week.
The state Senate voted 24-13 in favor of House Bill 265, which would eliminate a more than four-decade-old Louisiana law that prohibits all felons on probation and parole in Louisiana from voting.
Under the bill, most felons on probation or parole would be allowed to register to vote five years after they leave prison.
"These are people who actively want to vote," Sen. JP Morrell, D-New Orleans, said. "They understand how important that activity is."
The Senate version of the bill, which must head back to the state House for final approval, would not restore voting rights to those convicted of elections fraud and other election-related offenses.
It took three attempts this session to muster support in the House to get the bill through on a 61-39 vote a week ago, but proponents are optimistic that its next hurdle will be easier to cross. If it wins final House passage, it will then go to Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat who is likely to sign it into law.
“We don’t take this historic moment for granted,” said Norris Henderson, executive director of Voice of the Experienced. VOTE is a New Orleans-based group that advocates for formerly-incarcerated people. “Many people worked long and hard to get us here. We especially appreciate the fact that dozens of legislators have expressed their belief in our humanity for the first time. Now it’s time to make this meaningful and start registering thousands of voters across the state.”
The effort has drawn a broad bi-partisan show of support and even won the attention of two Saints football players who lobbied lawmakers in support of the bill.
"We are all encouraging youngsters register to vote, other people register to vote, these are people working very hard to get the right to vote," Sen. Dan Claitor, R-Baton Rouge, said. "We’re big on saying pay your debt and then you can earn your way back into a place in society."
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.
If approved, HB265 would for the first time since the 1970s allow felons on probation or parole to register to vote five years after their prison release. The change would go into effect beginning March 1.
The boost in the Legislature came on the heels of a state appellate court's decision to refuse to reconsider an April ruling upholding the legality of the law, forwarding the lawsuit challenging it to the Louisiana Supreme Court.
VOTE members and several people convicted of felonies have spent years arguing that the law is unconstitutional and prevents more than 70,000 Louisiana residents on probation or parole for felony crimes from voting.
Checo Yancy, a long-time advocate for formerly incarcerated people and the leader of VOTE's policy team, teared up as the Senate voted on the bill Wednesday.
"Most of all, I look forward to just going to vote for the first time in over 30 years with my wife and my little granddaughter who has always seen me as a good citizen despite mistakes I made in the past," he said in as statement.
Advocate reporter Rebekah Allen contributed to this report.
How Senators voted on House Bill 265
In favor of restoring voting rights to some felons (24): Sens. Barrow, Boudreaux, Carter, Chabert, Claitor, Colomb, Cortez, Gatti, Johns, LaFleur, Long, Luneau, Martiny, Milkovich, Mills, Morrell, Morrish, Perry, Peterson, Price, G. Smith, J. Smith, Tarver and Thompson.
Voting against (13): Sens. Alario, Allain, Appel, Donahue, Erdey, Hewitt, Lambert, Mizell, Peacock, Riser, Walsworth, Ward and White.
No vote (2): Sens. Bishop and Fannin.