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House Committee Willing To Ease Voting Restrictions On Convicted Felons

Sarah Gamard/LSU Manship School News Service
Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, authored a bill that would allow felons under community supervision to vote that passed in a House committee Wednesday.

People currently on parole, probation or in prison can’t vote in Louisiana. A bill from Rep. Pat Smith (D-Baton Rouge) would change that.  Once someone is out of prison for five years, their voting rights would be restored. 

Louisiana’s constitution says every citizen 18 or older shall have the right to vote, except those under an order of imprisonment for conviction of a felony. ‘Order of imprisonment’ is the key phrase here.

Miriam Waltzer is a retired judge from the Orleans Parish Criminal Court.

“An order of imprisonment in most people’s minds means to be in four walls, and you can’t come out,” she explained to members of the House and Governmental Affairs committee Wednesday.

But in the 1970s, Louisiana lawmakers determined ‘order of imprisonment’ also applied to people on probation or parole.

Currently, the right to vote is suspended until a person's sentence is completed. Under this bill, people in prison still wouldn’t be able to vote while serving their sentence.

“But for the folks who are on longer term parole — lifer parole, 20 years of parole, whatever — who have long since left incarceration — those people would be able to vote while on parole," said Bruce Reilly, Deputy Director of Voice of the Experienced, a group of formerly incarcerated people.

They’re currently challenging the state’s law in court, and support Rep. Smith’s bill.

“People who are in the community, who are part of the community, should be engaged in the community,” he explained.

Reilly says if this bill were to pass, about 50,000 people in Louisiana would be impacted.

But the Secretary of State’s office, the agency in charge of voting and elections, says this bill doesn’t address the logistical challenges of confirming voter eligibility.

The bill passed committee and is headed to the House floor.