After an hourlong debate over the definition of “incarceration,” the parables of Jesus, and whether a person’s time in prison is enough to pay their “debt to society,” Louisiana is poised to restore voting rights to potentially thousands of formerly incarcerated people convicted of felony crimes.
The state House already had approved the measure last week. But when the bill returned to the House from the Senate to approve a set of amendments, the bill faced nearly an hour of pushback and debate from conservative lawmakers, threatening to kill the bill despite backing it a week before.
On May 10, the bill passed the House — on its third try — by a vote of 59-42; it later passed the Senate by a vote of 24-13.
The House approved the amended bill May 17 by a vote of 54-42 and it now heads to Gov. John Bel Edwards, who’s expected to sign it.
House Bill 265 from state Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge, would eliminate a decades-old statute prohibiting felons on probation and parole from entering the voting booth.
A 1978 state law extended the state’s ban on felony prisoners from voting to people on probation or parole for those crimes; Smith’s bill would restore that right to most felons after a five-year period after leaving prison, giving roughly 3,000 of the state’s 70,000 formerly incarcerated people a chance to vote. It’s effective March 1, 2019.
Today’s vote was supposed to be merely procedural; the House already had passed the measure, so the vote was ostensibly over signing off on minor amendments from the Senate. Instead, a lengthy debate followed, relitigating the measure and seemingly threatening to kill the bill without a chance of revival this legislative session.
State Rep. Walt Leger, D-New Orleans, speculated that the Senate’s amendments were an “attempt to put this bill back to kill it.”
State Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, said the only thing that’s changed in the last week among lawmakers who flip-flopped on their position is the number of emails saying your convictions were wrong.”
“I’m going to ask you, in a week, what changed?” James said. “Your heart was right then, your convictions were in the right place.”
Ultimately, a handful of legislators did “change” their votes.
State Rep. Pat Connick voted against the bill last week but voted in favor of the amended version. The bill also gained a “yes” from state Rep. Stuart Bishop, who was absent last week, and two new “no” votes: Rep. Stephen Carter was absent last week and voted no May 17, and state Rep. Mark Wright voted against the amended bill — despite voting for it last week.
Republican lawmakers questioned whether felons should ever be allowed to vote, let alone five years after serving a sentence, and also expressed concerns that the bill would allow felons to serve on juries (they still can’t) by being linked to voter registries.
Smith said the House’s failure to pass the measure would tell formerly incarcerated people that “we don’t feel like they’ll ever be rehabilitated.”
“We need to stop treating people that once they go to jail that we’re going to keep punishing them forever,” said state Rep. Joseph Marino, I-Gretna.
“What kind of message do we send to those human beings, who have paid their debt to society?” said state Rep. Joseph Bouie, D-New Orleans. “They’re not incarcerated. They’re out here, with us. … Why wouldn’t we allow them to have that right again?”