House panel favors idea of allowing persons with felony voting privilege

BATON ROUGE — Legislation giving persons on felony probation and parole an opportunity to vote cleared the House and Governmental Affairs Committee here Wednesday with a 7-2 vote. The bill moves to the full House for debate.

Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, has tried unsuccessfully to pass similar bills in previous sessions. Her House Bill 265 this year has a different feature supporters think will help it succeed. The legislation would allow someone under an order of imprisonment for conviction of a felony to register and vote if he or she hasn’t been confined in a correctional facility within the last five years. Smith declined to add that provision in her previous bills.

The 1974 state constitution bars people “under an order of imprisonment” for a felony conviction from voting. A 1976 law that is being considered by a state court of appeal expanded that definition to include felons on probation or parole.

The 1st Circuit of Appeal heard arguments in the case in February and is expected to issue an opinion at any moment. State District Judge Tim Kelley said he reluctantly upheld the 1976 law. He said he agreed with the plaintiffs in the case but couldn’t bend the law.

One of the appeal court judges that heard the case said imprisonment means a person is in prison. He said they weren’t under an order of imprisonment if they were on probation or parole.

However, the state argues those persons are still under an order of imprisonment because they are subject to being returned to confinement if they violate the conditions of their probation or parole.

The American Probation and Parole Association filed briefs in the case and 17 professors from law schools at LSU, Southern, Tulane and Loyola also support the ability of persons on probation and parole being able to vote.

Bruce Riley with US Vote, a former felon, spoke in support of Smith’s bill, along with a spokesman for the APPA. 

A former felon who served 20 years at Angola and who has been on probation and parole for 15 years also spoke in favor. He said he is working, paying taxes and teaching Sunday school. While in prison, he said he broke no rules and isn’t the same person he was in 1983.

The legislation has the support of the Louisiana Conference of Catholic Bishops, the state AFL-CIO, the League of Women Voters, the National Association of Social Workers, the ACLU and a number of other organizations.

Kyle Ardoin, first assistant secretary of state, said the bill lacks details on what it would take for the Secretary of State’s Office to document the fact a felon has complied with the law. However, Smith said the state Department of Corrections sends a list of those who cannot vote to the secretary of state and could do it when they are qualified to vote.

A similar bill by Smith in 2017 never got out of committee. Her 2016 legislation failed to pass the House, picking up only 37 votes for to 60 against. She declined earlier to agree to the five-year trial period included in this year’s bill.