Fighting for the Right to Vote in Louisiana

March 13, 2017

Ashanti Witherspoon is 66-years-old. He calls Baker, Louisiana home, holds a doctorate in theology, has worked in schools and universities as an anti-violence counselor for young people, and was tapped by President Barack Obama’s staff as a resource on police and community relationships. But Ashanti can’t vote, because he was convicted in the 1970s.

In the Pelican State, formerly incarcerated citizens lose voting rights even while on probation or parole. But these Louisianans are heading to court in the hopes of changing that law and get their voting rights back. Today, a district court judge in Baton Rouge will hear their case challenging the state’s disenfranchisement law.

The case is called VOTE v. Louisiana, and it was brought by “Voice of the Experienced” (VOTE) a grassroots organization promoting civic engagement among formerly incarcerated citizens and their families around issues of voting rights and criminal justice. If successful, the suit would restore voting rights to nearly 70,000 Louisianans with past convictions who are now living in the community.

The question before the court is whether Louisiana’s current felon disenfranchisement rule is legal under the state’s Constitution, which states that people are not permitted to vote while they are “under an order of imprisonment.” In a statute passed after the Constitution was adopted, the state legislature defined “order of imprisonment” as a term of incarceration for a felony conviction and any subsequent probation or parole. VOTE is arguing that the legislature went too far, and that the constitution clearly only meant to disenfranchise people who are imprisoned — not people living in the community.

But beyond the legal arguments at work the lawsuit reveals a deeper issue: Louisiana’s criminal disenfranchisement law is doing real harm to returning citizens and their communities.

The Louisianans who are bringing this suit are no longer in prison and are now rebuilding ties back home. Like Ashanti, they have put in hard work to better their lives, but are still denied a say in our democracy

Louisiana is not better off by denying voting rights to citizens who are living and working in the community, and paying their taxes. There is no evidence that denying voting rights deters people from committing future crime, and a number of law enforcement and correctional officials have supported voting rights restoration as a way to help these Americans rebuild bridges between themselves and their community. And the data supports these claims. A 2011 Florida study showed that persons released from prisons whose rights were restored were three times less likely to return to prison or supervision than released individuals overall.

Disenfranchisement also has consequences for the broader community. Research has shown that when parents are not politically engaged, their children are less likely to grow up and become voting adults. And in neighborhoods with high incarceration rates, disenfranchisement laws have been shown to have a negative effect on voter turnout among eligible voters, i.e. the friends, family, and neighbors of the people who are disenfranchised. All of this can result in elected officials that are less responsive to the needs of everyone in the community. This is especially a problem for Louisiana’s communities of color: African Americans are 32 percent of the state population but make up 60 percent of everyone who has lost voting rights.

Regardless of who wins at the district court, this case is likely to go on for several months on appeal. In the meantime, the governor and state lawmakers need not wait for this suit to conclude. They have the power to change the law so that all adult citizens living in the community have the right to vote regardless of whether or not they have a past conviction. Last year a bill that would do just that came to the floor for a vote and failed to pass — but it marked the farthest such legislation has moved in recent memory. This year should be the year that the governor and legislature finally approve a bill that will undo Louisiana’s disenfranchisement law. The burden should be on the state’s lawmakers, and not their constituents, to finally put an end to this unfair and unnecessary law.

Click here for a May 2016 interview with Norris Henderson, the founder and Executive Director of Voice of the Experienced (VOTE).

(Image: ThinkStock)