Louisiana’s Republican-controlled Senate on Wednesday passed a bill that would restore voting rights to people with felony records who are on probation or parole, as long as they have been out of prison for five years.
The upper chamber of the state legislature considered House Bill 265, introduced by Democratic Rep. Patricia Smith and supported by voting advocates including Voice of the Experienced (VOTE). If the bill is agreed on by the House, which has already passed a version, and signed by the governor, at least a few thousand of the 70,000 Louisiana citizens currently on probation or parole will have their voting rights automatically restored on March 1, 2019.
During debate late Wednesday afternoon, Republican state Sen. Dan Claitor pointed to ex-felons in the chamber who have been advocating for the bill.
“Chico is on parole and would like to vote,” he said. “He did a bad thing a long time ago and he paid his debt to society… The question for me and you is: Is five years enough to earn the right to vote after the parole board says you can go out there? I think it’s a reasonable thing to do.”
Claitor pointed out that he once ran against a candidate who was not permitted to vote for himself.
Democratic Sen. Francis Thompson stood up to say he agrees with his colleague on the other side of the aisle. “If that makes them better citizens, that’s something we should do,” he said. No lawmakers spoke against the bill.
“These are people who actively want to vote, and they understand how important that activity is,” Democratic Sen. Jean-Paul Morrell said. “These are people who are the success stories — they left prison and didn’t go back.”
— JP Morrell (@JPMorrell) May 16, 2018
When the chamber voted 24-13 to pass the bill, applause could be heard in the gallery. The bill now heads to the House, which has to agree on a Senate-added amendment to exclude anyone convicted of election fraud. If the House agrees on the Senate version, it will head to the governor’s desk.
After the bill passed the state House on May 10, the third time the chamber had voted on the legislation, cheers reportedly erupted in the legislature. Norris Henderson, the executive director of VOTE who started the group while he was in Louisiana State Penitentiary, said the victory is a testament to the power of “showing up.”
“We built a coalition, and the people we brought in brought in more people, more organizations, more political leaders,” he said in a statement. “This final vote was a credit to the hard work of so many people, especially Representative Smith.”
In an editorial Wednesday, The Times-Picayune endorsed the bill, calling it a “safe approach” that it fits into the legislature’s larger sentencing reform effort in recent years. Last year, the state passed the Louisiana Justice Reinvestment Act in order to reduce the number of people in prison for non-violent crimes.
The editorial board noted that the bill has broad support, including the probation and parole association, religious leaders, and other advocacy groups.
While the bill moves to the governor, a lawsuit brought by VOTE is also moving forward in state courts challenging the state’s disenfranchisement law. The Louisiana Supreme Court will likely hear the case this year.
The legislation and litigation come at a time when a number of southern states are reassessing their felon disenfranchisement policies, which disproportionately impact voters of color. Last year, Alabama’s legislature passed, and the Republican governor signed, a bill defining which crimes qualify as disenfranchising, extending the right to vote to tens of thousands of ex-felons.
In Mississippi, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit this year over the state’s law, which bans people with felony records from voting for life unless they are able to have their lawmaker sponsor a suffrage bill on their behalf. The process is lengthy and onerous, and has only been completed 14 times in the last five years. As a result, one in ten adults — disproportionately African Americans — are disenfranchised.
In Florida, Gov. Rick Scott (R) has been entangled in litigation over the arbitrary nature in which he and his clemency board select who can have their rights restored. Earlier this year, a federal court found the system to be unlawful and ordered Scott to come up with a new one, but an appeals court stayed that ruling.
More than 1.5 million citizens in Florida cannot vote because of the law — the highest number of any state in the country. In November, Floridians will vote on a ballot amendment that would automatically restore rights to people who have completed their sentences. If passed with 60 percent approval, the amendment would fundamentally alter the electorate in the critical swing state.