Voting rights in H&GA

Republicans on the Louisiana House and Governmental Affairs Committee huddle on Wednesday, April 26, 2017, during debate on legislation that would allow convicted felons the right to vote five years after being released from prison. From left to right is Reps. Steve Pugh, of Ponchatoula; Lance Harris, of Alexander; Jay Morris III, of Monroe; John Schroder Sr., of Covington; and Gregory Miller, of Norco.

Strong opposition to allowing parolees to vote after they leave prison led a House committee Wednesday kill one bill and cause the sponsor of another to pull it for debate another day.

The House & Governmental Affairs Committee then approved without objection legislation that would forbid convicted felons from holding or seeking public office for 15 years after the completion of their sentence. House Bill 351, sponsored by Rep. Gregory Miller, R-Norco, now goes to the full House for consideration.

HB351 was chosen by the committee over a harsher, though similar measure sponsored by Rep. Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge. Edmonds voluntarily withdrew his legislation.

The issue came up because former Marrero legislator Derrick Shepherd in 2015 had sought to regain his House seat after leaving prison. He had who pleaded guilty to helping launder $141,000 in illegal proceeds. He was sentenced to three years in prison.

Shepherd argued that a 1997 law that would otherwise forbid him to do so was invalidated by technicalities. Shepherd wasn’t allowed to run but the Louisiana Supreme Court nullified the law because it wasn’t constitutionally passed.

The committee also wouldn’t allow most convicted felons to vote.

House Bill 235 called for a statewide election to allow voters to decide whether inmates would be allowed to cast ballots shortly after their release from prison. The committee shot down that effort, sponsored by Democratic Baton Rouge Rep. C. Denise Marcelle, on a vote of 2-to-5.

On a similar second measure, Rep. Patricia Haynes Smith, also a Baton Rouge Democrat, opted to voluntarily withdraw her House Bill 229, which would enfranchise inmates five years after their release from prison.

Smith said the aggressive questioning by Republicans on the committee led her to believe that HB229 would fail. The GOP holes a majority on the panel.

The maneuver allows Smith to bring the legislation up again for another hearing.

The Republican Party of Louisiana blasted emails Tuesday night asking members to contact GOP legislators on the panel and tell them not to support the two measures that would return the right to vote to convicts after being released from prison.

Smith pointed out that legislators allowed some freed inmates convicted of felonies to acquire firearms after 10 years, but many freed inmates convicted of felonies have to wait until their often decades-long parole is completed before they vote again.

Though the specifics vary widely, 16 states and the District of Columbia allow ex-felons to automatically gain the right to vote upon release from prison, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Twenty-eight other states restore voting rights upon completion of the sentence, meaning after parole terms are complete.

Smith said Louisiana has some of the longest paroles in the country.

Checo Yancy testified that he had been out of prison for 14 years, has a family, a job and pays taxes. “I can do everything except vote,” Yancy said. He will be on parole for another six years after being convicted in convicted in 1984 and sentenced to life imprisonment for aggravated kidnapping, aggravated crime against nature and possession of cocaine.

“I’m just asking for my voting rights back. It’s taxation without representation,” Yancy said.

“If the system believes you ought to be on parole, you ought not to be voting,” said Rep. John Schroder, R-Covington. He agreed, however, to work with Smith to find ways for some paroled inmates to vote while ensuring others convicted of more heinous crimes remain unable.

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.