Louisiana law could restore voting rights to more felons
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — A new Louisiana law taking effect in March aimed at restoring voting rights to some former felons still under supervision may reinstate the rights to tens of thousands more people than expected.
During debate on the bill, the measure’s sponsor said about 3,500 people could regain the right to vote under the legislation. Months later, NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune reports that advocates and elected officials say that number could be up to 36,000 people.
Officials were aware the new law will restore voting rights to people living in the community on parole with no problems for five years after prison release, along with people on probation for five years. Those groups are fairly small.
But legislators, advocates and prison officials say the law might also apply to the majority of people on probation who had their voting rights suspended but haven’t served any time in jail.
“You could read that law one of two ways,” said Natalie LaBorde, deputy commissioner with the Department of Corrections. “It’s just not super clear.”
If the more generous interpretation of the law is adopted, that would mean more than half of Louisiana’s 65,000 residents on probation and parole could apply to have their voting rights restored in fewer than three months.
The law that takes effect March 1 says “a person who is under an order of imprisonment for conviction of a felony and who has not been incarcerated pursuant to that order within the last five years shall not be ineligible to register or vote.”
There is widespread agreement that this new language applies to people on parole and probation who have been out of prison for five years with no major infractions. But most people on probation never go to prison for their offense and are put on community supervision instead.
The new language should allow them — even if they haven’t been on probation for five years — to vote as well, said Bruce Reilly, deputy director of Voice of the Experienced, an ex-offenders advocacy group known as VOTE.
Gretna Rep. Joe Marino, a lawyer who has no party affiliation, said he thought the law change only applied to parolees when he voted for it last spring, but now thinks it might apply to most probationers.
Debate around the bill during the legislative session was almost exclusively about the few thousand parolees that could be affected.
Marino said he wishes the law had been drafted more precisely.
“This is probably going to be litigated because they are going to have make a call about whether it includes these people or excludes these people,” he said. “I would say it’s not clear.”
Corrections and elections officials are meeting next month to hammer out details about the law change. LaBorde said it probably will be up to Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin to determine who gets to vote. But Ardoin’s office seems to have a different take.
While the secretary of state’s office wouldn’t comment on its interpretation of the new law, spokesman Tyler Brey said the agency expects to depend on the corrections department to provide a list of who is qualified to vote again.
“We don’t actually keep the numbers of people who will be eligible,” Brey said.
Ardoin didn’t support the law change to restore voting rights. VOTE intends to sue if Ardoin doesn’t move ahead with the broader interpretation of the new statute.
“We have lawyers lined up if we need them,” Reilly said.