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Thousands Become Eligible To Vote Friday, As Louisiana's New Felon Voting Law Takes Effect

Wallis Watkins
Checo Yancy (right) watches as the Louisiana Senate debates a bill in the 2018 legislative session that reinstates convicted felons' right to vote five years after release from prison.

More than 36,000 convicted felons in Louisiana will regain their right to vote Friday, March 1. One of those people is Checo Yancy.

Yancy lost his right to vote in 1983, when he was sentenced to prison. He spent 20 years at Angola.

“I’ve been out of prison now going on 16 years and I just want to get my voting rights,” Yancy told lawmakers at the Capitol recently.

He’s stayed out of prison, kept a clean record, pays taxes. Until now, state law prevented him from voting before his parole ends - 38 years from now. Yancy is 73.

On Friday, he’ll register to vote, thanks to a law passed last year by the Louisiana legislature.

It’s an issue Representative Pat Smith (D-Baton Rouge) has been working on for years.

“The very first time I brought the bill we just wanted to see how folks reacted to it, and of course they went ballistic, they didn’t want to see the bill pass,” says Smith.

But in 2018, enough lawmakers had warmed to the idea, getting approval from the House, Senate and Governor John Bel Edwards.

The new law allows convicted felons on community supervision to vote, so long as they haven’t been in prison in the last five years. It speeds up the current timeframe for some.  Right now, anyone convicted of a felony doesn’t regain their right to vote in Louisiana until they’ve completed their sentence, whether that’s prison, probation or parole.

"We were pushing the fact that individuals on life parole will die before they ever get the right to vote," explains Smith.

Folks on parole make up a small portion of those regaining their voting rights. The vast majority, about 30,000, are on probation, meaning their sentence does not include time in prison.

Some lawmakers say it wasn’t clear that so many felons would qualify to vote under the new law. Members of the House and Governmental Affairs committee met at the Capitol recently to sort through some of the confusion, including Representative Lance Harris (R-Alexandria), who voted against the bill on the House floor.  

“We were told in this committee on this bill as it passed here and off the floor that it only affected 4,000. Can someone tell me how now it’s grown from 4,000 to 36,500?” Harris asked officials from the Department of Corrections and Secretary of State's office.

It comes down to a key phrase in Louisiana’s constitution, ‘order of imprisonment.’

In the 1970s, Louisiana lawmakers determined ‘order of imprisonment’ applied not only to people in prison, but also to those on probation and parole.

Confusion regarding the new law doesn’t end with the number of convicted felons eligible. Some say the registration process is too complicated.

Bruce Reilly is the Deputy Director of Voice of the Experienced, a group advocating for formerly incarcerated people.

"The average citizen needs to go to the DMV, register, or at most go online, and that’s that,” says Reilly.

But for convicted felons, it’s going to require a few more steps.

The first is getting a form signed by their probation or parole officer, stating they’re eligible to vote. Next, the felon brings that form to their local registrar of voters office.

Reilly, a convicted felon himself, says the extra steps create a hassle that could impact how many people register.

“Going to two different state agencies, potentially waiting in line, in waiting rooms, potentially being turned away because so-and-so isn’t here today, all those things are actually going to work to suppress voting rights,” he says.

Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, responsible for overseeing Louisiana’s elections, agrees the process is a bit archaic. But it’s as simple as state law allows.

“If you want it to work any faster, then you’re going to have to change the law," he told members of the House and Governmental Affairs committee.

Bruce Reilly says the Legislature addressed the spirit of the law - restoring voting rights. But barriers to voter registration continue to exist.

Legislation to streamline the process could come next session.