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Civil rights groups fight to restore ex-felon voting rights

26th June 2017   ·   0 Comments

By Sharon Armstrong
Contributing Writer

Two civil rights groups have joined forces to battle a 2017 trial court ruling that allows the State of Louisiana to deny voting rights to more than 70,000 of its residents.

On June 13, The Advancement Project, a civil rights and racial justice program based in Washington D.C., announced their intention to file an appeal in the Louisiana Court of Appeal for the First Circuit on behalf of the New Orleans-based non-profit organization Voice of the Experienced (VOTE).

The appeal challenges a March 2017 decision by 19th Judicial District Judge Tim Kelley in which he, apparently somewhat reluctantly, upheld current laws that prohibit ex-felons on probation or parole from voting.

Louisiana’s 1974 Constitution allows suspension of voting rights for persons “interdicted and judicially declared mentally incompetent” or “under order of imprisonment” for a felony. In 1976, legislature enacted the Louisiana Election Code which defined those under “order of imprisonment” as including parolees. In 1977, an amendment expanded that definition to included persons “on probation” as well.

On July 1, 2016, VOTE and eight plaintiffs filed the case, VOTE v. Louisiana, which sought to restore the right to vote to ex-felons currently on parole or probation. VOTE v. Louisiana argued that while the intention of the 1974 Louisiana Constitution was to prohibit incarcerated people from voting, it was not intended to prevent those on probation or parole from doing so.

“The people who framed and ratified the 1974 Louisiana Constitution guaranteed the power of the vote to all persons in Louisiana who are not incarcerated,” said Deputy Director of VOTE and case plaintiff Bruce Reilly. “For far too long the state legislature has overstepped that definition in creating a law that has barred people from voting, and in a way that is unconstitutional.”

The debate on whether those on parole or probation are included in this definition hinges, according to The Louisiana Law Review, on the exact definition of “order of imprisonment.”

But Executive Director of VOTE Norris Henderson said in a statement that “more is at stake than just the legal interpretation of the Louisiana Constitution.”

“The case asks the moral question: which Louisianans deserve to have a voice?” said Henderson. “It is time for the courts to protect the fundamental right to vote for all citizens.”

The legal stance on the voting rights of ex-felons varies widely from state to state. In Maine and Vermont, persons with felony convictions never lose their right to vote, while in nine states – including Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida – restoration of voting rights can only be restored via Governor’s Action or Court Action. In 38 states and the District of Columbia, most persons automatically gain their right to vote upon completion of their sentence, which includes parole and/or probation. The State of Louisiana falls into this category.

According to the National Institute of Corrections (NIC), Louisiana has the highest per capita incarceration rate in the United States – nearly double the national average. The Advancement Project estimates that there are approximately 40,000 people in Louisiana who were convicted of a felony and are on probation, and approximately 30,000 ex-felons on parole. According to the Project, while African Americans comprise 32.5 percent of Louisiana’s population, 50 percent of those on probation and 60 percent of those on parole are Black.

Founded in 1987 as the Angola Special Civics Project at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, VOTE was originally run by prisoners who had become paralegals.

“The 2017 legislative session raised some crucial questions on how best to deal with rehabilitation, reentry, and sentences that make sense,” said Bruce Reilly. “Everyone from the governor to the district attorneys to the probation officers recognized the importance of systemic reform. The right to vote is a basic right of citizenship.”

Kenneth Johnston is a Vietnam veteran and another plaintiff in the lawsuit. Denying his right to vote also effectively denies him his U.S. citizenship, said Johnston.

“I fought a war for this country and I take pride in that sacrifice,” said Johnston. “When I came home from Vietnam, life wasn’t easy on me or on a lot of other people. Sometimes we go back to tough circumstances, and end up in bad situations. We deal with addiction, mental illness, homelessness, and incarceration more than those who never went into combat. Denying my voting rights is denying my United States citizenship. What’s next? Will they take away my service record?”

Restoring ex-felons’ voting rights has met with strong opposition in Louisiana. In April 2017, the House & Governmental Affairs committee caused Rep. Patricia Haynes Smith, D-Baton Rouge, to voluntarily pull her House Bill 229 (HB229), which would have enfranchised inmates five years after their being released from prison.

Smith describes the current voting laws as “frustrating” and “a form of imprisonment.”

“I do believe the law needs to change,” said Smith. “I feel that they (the plaintiffs) have a case. These laws leave individuals unable to fulfill their civic responsibility. Those who work have no voice in choosing their elected official at all levels…taxation without representation. They often become isolated and frustrated with the process. It also causes other household members not to vote. The idea of not allowing a felon to vote is another form of imprisonment.”

According to Denise Lieberman, senior attorney and co-program director of the Power and Democracy Program at Advancement Project, the appeal will have far-reaching repercussions for communities all across Louisiana.

“How long do people have to pay?” said Lieberman. “When you look at some of the plaintiffs in this case, you have people whose crime took place 30 or 40 years ago. They were held accountable, they paid for their crime, and they were judged fit to be put back into the community where they have worked, paid taxes and raised families. They are citizens in every sense of the word except for the fact that they have no voice. There is really no valid legal reason or public service reason for this to be the case.”

While, according to, opponents of felon re-enfranchisement insist restrictions are consistent with such voting constraints as residency and age, proponents argue that felons have paid their debt to society, and efforts to block ex-felons from voting is undemocratic and often politically or racially motivated.

“Any time that we talk about limiting the rights of citizens to have access to the vote, we are actually talking about limiting their having access to our democracy,” said Lieberman. “With the population of prisons disproportionally African America, not only does this law go beyond what the Constitution allows, it perpetuates a sordid legacy of mass incarceration and criminalization of people of color. The real question is: Did the legislature go too far in expanding the rule to include people on parole or probation? And we say, ‘Yes, it did’”

This article originally published in the June 26, 2017 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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