Thousands of Louisiana felons likely to have voting rights restored after this final step is done

Louisiana could soon restore voting rights to thousands of people convicted of felonies who remain on probation or parole, after a years-long effort at the State Capitol triumphed on Thursday.

After more than an hour of debate, the House voted 54-42 to restore voting rights to most felons on probation or parole five years after they leave prison.

“They pay their taxes, but they don’t even get a chance to vote for you as their representative or any other person,” said Rep. Pat Smith, a Baton Rouge Democrat who authored House Bill 265. “All we’re trying to do is give them the right to vote — most of them say — before they die.”

The measure now heads to Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat who is expected to sign it into law.

The bill’s unlikely passage didn’t come easy. It was rejected twice in the House earlier this session, before it passed on its third attempt just a week ago.

And it had little time to spare. The Legislature is expected to wrap up its regular session on Friday, a condensed time frame that shifted HB265 from long-shot to fast-track in a week’s time.

If signed into law, as expected, it will go into effect March 1.

“The right to vote is a cornerstone of our democracy,” said Rep. Joe Marino, No Party-Gretna.

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.

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.

Smith said that the measure would restore voting rights to about 3,500 of the more than 70,000 Louisiana residents on probation or parole for felony crimes.

“You hold a mistake over the rest of their life,” she said. “They pay our salaries.”

Sitting in the back of the room was Checo Yancy, who along with other advocates has been a fixture at the State Capitol lobbying on behalf of formerly incarcerated people, such as himself. Yancy was sentenced to life behind bars for felony crimes in 1984 but has been released on parole since 2003. Without a legal change, he would never regain the right to vote.

“He’s in the back in a blue t-shirt in tears,” said Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge. “(He) deserves the opportunity to participate in his government.”

In the week since the bill moved out of the House chamber on its third attempt, members said special interest groups began putting pressure on legislators to vote the bill down.

One of the popular talking points against the measure was that it could ultimately allow felons on parole to serve on juries, which Smith repeatedly pushed back against as “not true.”

“This bill is doing what we said it was going to do,” she said.

But several members said that they felt that felons on probation and parole had not fully served their convictions and so were not entitled to vote.

“Their penalty has not been fulfilled, and that’s my objection,” said Rep. Steve Pylant, a Winnsboro Republican who is a retired sheriff.

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The debate over the merits of the bill came despite the fact that the House was only tasked with agreeing or disagreeing with a Senate change that excludes people convicted of election fraud or other elections-based felonies from reinstatement.

Ten members changed their votes from May 10 — the last time the House took up the proposal. Six who voted in favor last time didn’t vote on Thursday, while one member changed from “yes” to “no,” one member went from “no” to “yes,” one member who didn’t vote before voted “yes,” and one member who didn’t vote before voted “no.”

How they voted on House Bill 265 on May 17, 2018:

In favor of restoring voting rights to some felons (54): Reps. Abraham, Abramson, Armes, Bagneris, Billiot, Bishop, Bouie, Brass, C. Brown, Carpenter, R. Carter, Chaney, Connick, Cox, Duplessis, Dwight, Emerson, Foil, Franklin, Gaines, Gisclair, Glover, Guinn, Hall, J. Harris, Hill, Hoffmann, Hunter, Jackson, James, Jefferson, Jenkins, Johnson, Jones, Jordan, T. Landry, LeBas, Leger, Lyons, Magee, Marcelle, Marino, DMiller, G. Miller, Norton, Pierre, Reynolds, Richard, Shadoin, Smith, Stagni, Thibaut, White and Zeringue.

Voting against (42): Barras, Amedee, Bacala, Bagley, Berthelot, Carmody, S. Carter, Davis, DeVillier, Edmonds, Falconer, Garofalo, L. Harris, Havard, Hazel, Henry, Hensgens, Hodges, Hollis, Horton, Howard, Huval, Ivey, N. Landry, Leopold, Mack, McFarland, Miguez, Jay Morris, Jim Morris, Pearson, Pope, Pugh, Pylant, Schexnayder, Seabaugh, Simon, Stefanski, Stokes, Talbot, Thomas and Wright.

Not voting (8): Anders, T. Brown, G. Carter, Coussan, Crews, Cromer, Hilferty and Muscarello.

The House also voted on the bill May 10. Here are the changes on May 17:

From No to Yes (1): Rep. Connick.

Absent to Yes (1): Rep. Bishop.

Yes to No (1): Rep. Wright.

Absent to No (1): Rep. S. Carter.

Yes to Absent (6): Reps. Anders, T. Brown, G. Carter, Coussan, Hilferty and Muscarello.

This article provided by NewsEdge.