You would have thought Louisiana Republicans already would have learned how to act like the majority party.
That hit home last month when the State Capitol buzzed about a measure expanding felon voting rights passed into law last year. Until March, felons can’t vote until their order of imprisonment expires, leaving out those on probation or parole.
Legislators, mostly Democrats but with some Republicans joining in, changed that to permit felons to vote five years after sentencing if not imprisoned. Discussions over the bill repeatedly mentioned figures of two or three thousand newly eligible registrants to vote.
Given voting history by race and the demographics of the convict population, those becoming enfranchised — if they choose to register and vote, which data suggest would be a minority — likely would vote disproportionately for Democrats. However, the number appeared low enough that many Republicans were unconcerned.
Not that they needed a political reason to reject it. Restoring the right to vote early has no impact on recidivism, felons on the street already can participate in politics through a number of avenues, and delaying voting rights provided an additional incentive for them not to re-offend. On its policy merits, the change was both unnecessary and noxious.
Yet now proponents claim the modification will apply to a dozen-fold more felons than many legislators believed, asserting that it also affects any felon never originally imprisoned. That possibility came up in debate, but bill author Democrat state Rep. Pat Smith and the Department of Corrections under Gov. John Bel Edwards, another Democrat, kept insisting on the lower estimate.
Corrections officials now sing a different tune, bringing into question whether the Edwards Administration strung Republicans along. Currently, they say that Republican Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin has the final call on interpreting the law’s implementation. Then again, the interest group and administration ally that pushed for the change, Voice of the Experienced, has threatened to sue Ardoin if he goes with the lower number.
The Republican-majority Legislature could clear this up by passing legislation next session clarifying the original intent — eligibility restored after five years to parolees only, not to probationers who haven’t served any time. Unfortunately, in seeking an electoral advantage for him and his party, Edwards won’t permit it.
Unwilling to take heat for vetoing such a bill, he’ll kill it before it reaches his desk by relying on Senate allies. Despite Republicans outnumbering Democrats almost two-to-one in the Senate, senators handed control of the body to Democrat-turned-Republican John Alario, even while knowing he would serve as Edwards’ legislative bootlicker.
Accordingly, given the power to appoint committee members, Alario stocked several panels with a majority of Democrats and put Democrats as their leaders. One is the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee, which handles questions of voting eligibility.
So, even with probable solid majorities in each chamber backing the clarification, Edwards supporters will bottle it up. And thereby Democrats will add ten thousand or more voters to the voting rolls in time for fall elections.
By now, given the pattern of disinformation emanating from the Edwards Administration on issues such as budgeting, legislative Republicans should know not to take the word of Gov. Honor Code when an issue brings them into substantial conflict. Nor should have they acquiesced to giving Democrats such outsized power in the Senate.
As a result, GOP legislators reap bad policy and political disadvantage. Their leadership should understand that the electorate who made Republicans the majority might reconsider if too many GOP lawmakers let Democrats win too often.
Jeff Sadow is an associate professor of political science at Louisiana State University-Shreveport. He is author of a blog about Louisiana politics at www.between-lines.com and writes about Louisiana legislation at www.laleglog.com. Follow him on Twitter, @jsadowadvocate or email email@example.com. His views do not necessarily express those of his employer.