NEW ORLEANS — Activists say they are working to overturn what they contend is an improper misinterpretation of the Louisiana Constitution that excludes people on probation from voting even though they hold jobs and pay taxes like other state residents.
“Voting is a fundamental right in a democracy,” Bruce Reilly, spokesperson for nonprofit watchdog group Voice of the Experienced (VOTE), told the Louisiana Record.
The organization’s aim is to reform the criminal justice system in Louisiana, dubbed by critics as "the prison capital of the world."
The provision in the state Constitution was enacted in 1974 and two years later added that the voting ban extended to those people on probation or parole from a felony.
Defined as “under an order of imprisonment,” the provision in the Louisiana Constitution allows the state to suspend voting rights for people who have been convicted of a felony, and lawmakers have interpreted this to include felons who have been released on parole or probation.
Approximately 70,000 people statewide are prohibited under such conditions from voting and the majority are low-income and people of color, according to VOTE statistics.
In July 2016, a lawsuit was filed by Voice of the Ex Offender (since renamed VOTE) to suspend the voting ban. However on March 19, Judge Tim Kelley of the 19th Judicial District upheld the voting ban for Louisiana residents released from jail on parole or probation.
Reilly said Kelley’s judgement was flawed.
“He did not follow the proper standards of review,” Reilly said. “It’s not a matter of just what you come up with [for the judgment], but how you came up with it.”
Reilly said the state's Constitution had not been specific on how far a voter ban should be extended and added that some people denied the right to vote never did jail time. In some cases, they went from the courthouse to probation and have since been productive members of the community.
Kelley's decision is being challenged at the Louisiana 4th Circuit Court of Appeal and activists say they are willing to take the issue to the Louisiana Supreme Court.
“We would like to see all people living in the community who are working a job and paying taxes have the right to vote,” Reilly said. “We want sustainable communities.”