This year in Louisiana almost 37,000 people became eligible to vote, thanks to a law that reinstated voting rights for formerly incarcerated people after they’ve served five years of parole. But only a small portion of those people have actually registered to vote in time to participate in the statewide election.
Checo Yancy is registered to vote for the first time in almost 40 years. He was incarcerated for 20 years — or 7,309 days, he says — in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. Yancy was released in 2003, and he’s served 16 years of his parole.
He cast his first vote in the October primary, and went to City Hall in Baton Rouge to register his early vote in the runoff.
Yancy greets the workers in the registrar's office. "It’s me again — ready to do my early voting. I'm appreciative to have it back after being in prison all that time," he says.
The voting card is inserted into the machine, and Yancy makes his selections. The whole process — from check in to finalizing his vote — takes about two minutes. For Yancy, the very act of voting is significant.
"It feels like I'm a part of something," he says. "Something that I take responsibility for losing, but now I can actually say that I have my voting rights back. And it made my family proud that now I’m a part of being a real citizen."
The voter registration process was pretty easy for Yancy. That's partly because he works for Voice of the Experienced, a non-profit organization that advocates for the rights of formerly incarcerated people. The group was actively involved in getting the law passed in 2018, and Yancy understood exactly what he had to do to register.
"You have to be out five years and not go back to trouble, and then you have to go to your parole office and they will tell you you’re eligible, you get a letter with a seal, you take that to the registrars office downtown and they will look it up make sure everything is straight and then put you back on the voting rolls."
There are no definitive numbers on how many formerly incarcerated people have registered to vote. Out of the total 37,000 who were eligible, the Secretary of State’s office says roughly 1,300 have had their voting rights reinstated. Another 4,000 new voters have registered since March 1, formerly incarcerated or not. The bottom line is only a fraction of those eligible registered in time for this election.
Norris Henderson is the founder of Voice of the Experienced. He says the registration process for formerly incarcerated people is cumbersome, and should be streamlined.
"Corrections just wanted to do — let us just upload the file [of] who’s all eligible, send it to you, and if their name is not flagged inside your system, register them to vote," says Henderson.
The same system used by the Department of Corrections to tell the Secretary of State that a person should be taken off the voting rolls could be used to put people back on, says Henderson.
But in a statement, Republican Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin said in-person documentation is necessary to confirm eligibility, and "the law does not change the process for reinstatement or registration, simply who is newly eligible."
"It really boils down to the Secretary of State being willing to accept what the Department of Corrections gives them, and I think that’s where the breakdown comes in," said Representative Pat Smith.
The Baton Rouge Democrat authored the bill, and says Ardoin hasn’t done enough to support the new law.
"In the law it said that the Department of Corrections and Secretary of State would sit down to go over the procedures on how this was supposed to be implemented," Smith says. "And to my knowledge that really hasn’t been done to the extent that it should be done."
Checo Yancy says the other reason people aren’t registering to vote is because they don’t know that they’re eligible. "The Secretary of State is not doing — really not doing anything. We've been putting it out in barber shops, beauty salons. So if the secretary of state would help, there would probably be a lot more people probably registered."
Despite the slow rollout, Representative Smith says she is happy that ,after working on the issue for four years, the law has finally changed.
"We've given an opportunity to people serving their probation and parole, doing the right thing, raising their family, paying their taxes, and all they wanted to do was vote. And so we’ve given them that right to vote," she said.
It's a right that Checo Yancy says he won’t take for granted.