Over the past few days, VOTE and our allies have experienced a few setbacks along our journey to the full restoration of civil and human rights for formerly and currently incarcerated people. Below are our official statements on the following decisions that were recently made by the Louisiana House of Representatives and the Louisiana Court of Appeal for the First Circuit, respectively.
On House Bill 265 - decision made April 17:
Last night the Louisiana House of Representatives voted in opposition to House Bill 265, an important voting rights bill that would restore this fundamental right to the approximately 71,000 Louisianans currently on probation and parole.
In 2016, a similar voting rights bill lost 60-37. Since that time, the total number of people without the right to vote in Louisiana has been close to 200,000. This year’s bill, HB 265, lost by a vote of 53-35, with nobody standing up in vocal opposition. We are closing the gap. Though it is clear that civil rights and public safety still have a long way to go, an incremental victory is worth noting along the long arc of justice. It has been more than a century since those who drafted the 1901 constitution openly condemned democracy using an overtly racist platform, and wins along the way do not go uncelebrated.
Through this legislation and litigation (VOTE v. Louisiana), the public has gained a civics education and witnessed a steady shift of the narrative. It is important to recognize that the legislators were not swayed by the testimony of a judge (who never sentenced anyone to lose their voting rights), a probation officer (who recognized that the public is safer by encouraging people to be engaged in positive, pro-social behavior), and a historian (who noted that this was not the intent of the Louisiana voters when ratifying the constitution). They were also not swayed by three disenfranchised people discussing the impacts of voting on their families, their faith, and their positive connection with the political process.
There can be no progress without struggle. This is the path to building power and shaping the movement. “Every disenfranchised person knows at least two people who can and do vote,” says Norris Henderson, VOTE’s Executive Director. “Eventually, those who resist democracy will be on the wrong side of history.” In 2019, legislators across the state are up for reelection.
On VOTE v. Louisiana - decision made April 13:
At the end of last week, the Louisiana Court of Appeal for the First Circuit affirmed dismissal of our lawsuit, VOTE v. Louisiana, yet we are not finished. We are gearing up to take our fight for the restoration of 71,000 formerly incarcerated people's voting rights to the Louisiana Supreme Court. “From the very beginning, we felt this case belonged in the Louisiana Supreme Court,” says our Executive Director Norris Henderson. “The judges seeing this case so far are upholding a law that we know is unconstitutional. The Louisiana Supreme Court is best positioned to right this wrong. They can proclaim once and for all that the Louisiana Constitution guarantees the right to vote, a vote that can only be suspended during, not after, incarceration. For VOTE members, that day cannot come soon enough. We are human beings who have done everything that’s been asked of us. The state needs to make good on the promise of the right to vote we have based on the Constitution.”
In a March 2017 ruling granting summary judgment to the state in VOTE v. Louisiana, 19th Judicial District Judge Tim Kelley said that, even though he was ruling against plaintiffs, he thought this was unfair. VOTE appealed the ruling to the First Circuit Court of Appeal, arguing that the Constitution explicitly guarantees the right to vote to all people who are not “under an order of imprisonment,” including those on probation and parole. The First Circuit’s decision today, which rejects this interpretation, paves the way for an appeal to the Louisiana Supreme Court.
The Court’s opinion defers to enactments of the legislature, which is currently considering HB 265, a bill that would restore voting rights sooner. VOTE is supporting this legislative change. It passed out of a committee in the House of Representatives last week on a 7-2 vote and could face a vote on the House floor early next week.
“This coming week, elected officials have the opportunity to stand on the side of the right to vote,” said Bruce Reilly, our Deputy Director. “Bills like HB 265, which would allow people on parole and probation to regain their voting rights sooner, will be voted on. Louisiana has the highest rate of incarceration nationwide and the highest numbers of families directly impacted by criminal convictions. Passing HB 265 would open the doors of democracy to parolees and probationers who have been out of prison for five or more years. Whether it’s the courts recognizing our right to vote – as stated in the constitution – or the legislature making clear its intentions, VOTE will keep fighting all the way to victory.”
Read the full piece from our partners at Advancement Project.