Norris Henderson has uncovered a sleeping giant: many Louisiana residents who have felony records believe -- mistakenly -- that they cannot vote. Last month, Gambit Weekly surveyed people all over New Orleans -- from the state's probation office to voter registrars to the streets of town ("Not Barred," March 30). We asked if they knew whether people with felony records were allowed to vote in Louisiana. Some people thought felons in this state were disenfranchised -- unable to vote -- for life; others believed they had to wait for a certain number of years. Very few knew that Louisiana residents with felony records can register to vote as soon as they are off probation or parole.
The confusion stems from the fact that voting laws vary significantly from state to state. On one end of the spectrum, Maine and Vermont disenfranchise no one, not even inmates in their state prisons. At the other extreme are seven states, including three on the Gulf Coast -- Florida, Alabama and Mississippi -- that disenfranchise ex-felons for life. Louisiana used to disenfranchise anyone convicted of a felony unless they received a pardon from the governor. The 1974 constitution created a more moderate policy, one that is now shared by 28 other states. But a moderate law is no help if potential voters don't know about it.
That's where Henderson comes in. Last month, he formed a new group called VOTE (Voice Of The Ex-offender), which aspires to get ex-felons to register and then vote in the upcoming presidential election. It's a big job, especially considering the fact that Louisiana incarcerates more people per capita than any other state. Every year, 15,000 inmates come home from this state's prisons; about 5,000 return to Jefferson and Orleans parishes.
Henderson is undertaking an important task. The poorest neighborhoods in our city are also the hardest hit by our state's high incarceration rates. These neighborhoods are plagued with many of the ills that accompany high rates of poverty and, in order to turn these areas around, residents need to be able to work hand-in-hand with their elected officials. That can best be accomplished if the residents feel as though their voices are heard -- and if officials know that people in every neighborhood can and will express themselves at the ballot box.
Voting can also have rehabilitative powers for those who enter the booth on Election Day, particularly those who have been imprisoned for wrongs against society and who desire to make a clean start. Studies show that people released from prison who feel as though they are accepted back into society are more likely to obey the law and stay out of prison. "Voting makes a guy feel a part of a community again," Henderson says. This is especially true, he believes, in a political town such as New Orleans, where, on Election Day, "everybody is working on somebody's campaign."
Lawmakers can help ex-felons make a smoother transition back to their home parishes. Current Louisiana law requires notice to voter registrars when someone's felony conviction becomes final -- and the felons are immediately purged from the rolls. Our laws do not, however, notify registrars or ex-felons when someone satisfactorily completes parole or probation and is thus eligible to vote again. All voters must register in person at a registrar's office, and it makes sense to let everyone concerned know when someone is eligible to register. New York recently changed its policy after lawyers from the Brennan Center for Justice proved that the state's registrars were so erratically informed about the state's voting law that many eligible voters were actually prevented from registering.
Ex-felons in Louisiana face similar barriers. Because voting helps ex-felons participate more fully in society, Louisiana should consider joining the 16 states that return the vote to ex-felons immediately upon their release from prison, even if they are still on probation or parole. Additionally, lawmakers should pass a bill that would require sending eligibility notices to registrars and ex-felons -- to make sure everyone knows who's eligible. It's important for individuals to feel the power of the vote. Equally important, it's good for the country to welcome eligible voters to the polls.
Vote FOR Jefferson Schools On Saturday, April 17, voters in Jefferson Parish will go to the polls to decide whether to renew seven mills of property tax for the parish's public school system. Voters most recently renewed the longstanding tax in 1994. If voters again renew the tax, property owners will continue to pay their current rate of school property taxes. In its analysis, the Bureau of Governmental Research (BGR) called the millage "an established component" of the school system's budget and noted that public schools would lose $560,000 in state money if the renewal fails. BGR also noted that Jefferson Parish property owners currently pay the lowest rates of school property taxes in the metropolitan area. We agree that the funds are needed for Jefferson Parish schools and urge our readers in Jefferson Parish to vote FOR renewing the property tax.