NEW ORLEANS — In the wake of a lawsuit filed against the state to restore voting rights to ex-offenders, the Louisiana Attorney General's Office said voting restrictions on those on parole or probation is constitutional.
Voice of the Offender (VOTE) filed a lawsuit against the state, the governor, and the secretary of state on July 1 requesting that individuals on probation and parole be granted the right to vote.
“Although we are not a named defendant in the case, our office is reviewing the case,” Ruth Wisher, spokeswoman with the AG’s office told the Louisiana Record. “We do believe that restrictions on voting rights are constitutional.”
Pamela S. Karlan, co-director of the Supreme Court Litigation Clinic at Stanford Law School in California, spoke with the Louisiana Record about the history of felony disenfranchisement.
“There are two conventional arguments (when it comes to denying felons the right to vote),” she said. “First, the argument is that people who broke the social contract don’t deserve to vote. It’s just part of the punishment. This dates back to long before the United States was a country. It has a long pedigree of reasoning. I don’t agree with it, but it was thought to be kind of a civil death.”
The second argument is more ominous.
“A second less-legitimate argument is that race has played a history in voter disenfranchisement," Karlan said. "For example, in Alabama in the early 1900s, the state came up with a list of misdemeanors that would deny people the right to vote. The list was created based on which crimes they thought black people committed more often. For a long time, race has a played a large role in voter disenfranchisement."
When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, it “ended unequal application of voter registration requirements,” but this privilege did not extend to individuals convicted of felonies.
Individual states have different restrictions on voting rights for people who have been convicted of felonies. In Louisiana, the restrictions end when incarceration, parole and/or probation is complete. Only two states, Maine and Vermont, have unrestricted voting rights for people who are felons. In 14 other states, disenfranchisement ends when incarceration is complete.
For example, Bruce Reilly, one of the plaintiffs named in the VOTE lawsuit, served 12 years in a Rhode Island prison. When he was released, his voting rights in Rhode Island were restored to him. When he moved to Louisiana to pursue a law degree, he lost those rights until 2035, when he completes his probation term. It should be noted that Reilly pays state and federal taxes, has received national recognition for his work and community service, and has earned his law degree, but he cannot vote in Louisiana.
President Barack Obama supports restoring the vote to individuals who have served their time and re-entered society; and in 2014, U.S. Attorney General Eric H. Holder called on state leaders and elected officials “to pass clear and consistent reforms to restore the voting rights of all who have served their terms in prison or jail, completed their parole or probation, and paid their fines."
Earlier this year, Louisiana House Bill 598, which would restore voting rights to a person convicted of a felony after they left prison, failed to pass by a vote of 60-37.
“The current electorate voted them (the legislators) in,” Karlan said. "When you change the electorate, you potentially change the outcome of the election, not just at a federal level, but state and locally, too.”