After Years Of Trying, Legislature Moves Toward Restoring Voting Rights For Felons

May 17, 2018

Checo Yancy sat on the edge of his seat as Louisiana Senators debated a bill that would restore his right to vote, something he hasn’t been able to do since 1983.

Anyone in prison, or on probation or parole in Louisiana is barred from voting until the end of their sentence. But on Wednesday, the Senate passed a bill by Rep. Pat Smith (D-Baton Rouge), that would make anyone who’s been out of prison for five years eligible to vote.

"These folks just want to go into a ballot box, pull the lever and be able to vote for the impact on their lives," says Smith.

It’s a reform Smith has been trying to pass for years.

Senator JP Morrell (D-New Orleans) presented the bill on the Senate floor. "The recidivism rate in Louisiana for criminal offenses is very high," said Morrell. "So these are people who are the success stories, who left prison and didn’t go back."

The bill got high profile support earlier this week from New Orleans Saints players Demario Davis and Benjamin Watson. They sent a letter urging lawmakers to pass the legislation.

Watson says the goal of the criminal justice system is to hold people accountable, but it shouldn’t keep them from participating in the democratic process. He says it’s an issue of civil rights.

“It’s no secret that much of the criminal justice system is slanted and skewed towards minorities, towards blacks," Watson said. "And so we still see kind of the legacy of that even to this day.”

The bill still technically needs final approval in the House, but an emotional Checo Yancy says regaining the right to vote means he would no longer feel like a second-class citizen.

"Wow, I can go with my family, I don’t have to sit in the car now. I can actually go into the polls and I can vote, too. Wow, what a feeling," he said.

If Gov. John Bel Edwards signs the bill, it would go into effect next year.