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Analysis: Plan murky in Louisiana felon voting right change

January 18, 2019

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana is edging closer to the March 1 start date for a new law restoring voting rights to thousands of convicted felons, but with little seemingly settled about how to roll out the change.

Questions range from when newly eligible voters will be able to register for their restored rights to how they’ll be notified they even have that option. State officials say they’re working on the details, though they say the law wasn’t clearly drafted, making their task trickier.

“We’re working to get this done as soon as possible, but we have to get this done correctly, and it does make our job harder with a poorly written law,” said Tyler Brey, spokesman for Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, who oversees elections and opposed the voting rights change.

Bruce Reilly, deputy director of Voice of the Experienced — an ex-offenders advocacy group known as VOTE — said state officials seem to be making this more complicated than it needs to be. He said more information should be available online to notify felons of the coming change and give them details of what they’ll need to do to see their voting rights reinstated. He questioned the paperwork being developed.

“We want them to succeed,” Reilly said of state officials. “I just don’t have much faith that it’s going to be accurate and correct.”

Even settling on the number of people who can get their rights restored after the law was passed proved controversial. Tens of thousands of felons are expected to be eligible for voting rights reinstatement, even though debate often centered on descriptions of a few thousand.

Louisiana lawmakers agreed to the voting rights measure last year. Rep. Patricia Smith, the Baton Rouge Democrat who sponsored the legislation, fought for years to win backing for the law change. In her latest successful effort, it took multiple votes to get it out of the House. Supporters gave impassioned speeches about rehabilitation, redemption, and forgiveness.

Louisiana’s 1974 constitution allows suspension of voting rights for people who are “under an order of imprisonment” for a felony. A law passed two years later specified that people on probation or parole for a felony are included in that definition, leaving some unable to ever vote again after incarceration.

The law change under Smith’s bill will allow someone on probation or parole for a felony to register to vote if the person “has not been incarcerated pursuant to the order within the last five years” — though not someone convicted of felony election offenses.

Generally, lawmakers talked about people on parole and probation who have been out of prison for five years. But officials say the law also is expected to apply to thousands more people on probation whose voting rights were suspended but who never went to prison because they were put on community supervision instead.

“We believe that this law covers more people than was originally stated,” Brey said.

Natalie LaBorde, the corrections department’s deputy assistant secretary, told NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune the law is “just not super clear,” but she confirmed revised estimates are that as many as 36,000 people could be eligible to regain their voting ability.

Smith disagrees the law was poorly written, saying it was always clear it would apply to probationers with suspended prison sentences. She said she just didn’t know how many people that might be.

“If the policy is right, what difference does it make about the numbers?” said Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat who signed the voting rights change into law.

Brey said the Department of Corrections will determine who is eligible for restored voting rights under the law, and Smith agreed. It’s unclear if the corrections department also adopts that interpretation.

The secretary of state’s office, Brey said, is working with the corrections agency to develop a form that a felon eligible under the new law can bring to the parish registrar of voters to reinstate those voting rights. The process will have to be done in person, he said.

So far, the state registrars association says it hasn’t gotten any training on how to implement the law change.

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EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte

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