House reinstates prisoner voting rights bill

House reinstates prisoner voting rights bill
Rep. Pat Smith, D-Baton Rouge, celebrated the House passing a bill that would restore the right to vote to some felons on probation and parole. Source: Sarah Gamard/LSU Manship School News Service

BATON ROUGE (WVUE/LSU REVEILLE) - After rejecting the bill twice this session, the House voted 60-40 to reinstate voting rights to formerly incarcerated felons after five years even if they are still on parole.

The bill came after a long fight by prisoner rights advocates. Louisiana is one of 21 states where felons lose the right to vote during incarceration and for the duration of their probation and parole, according to a study from the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Sixteen states and the District of Columbia have more lax policies about restoring felons' voting rights. The 13 other states generally have more restrictive laws than Louisiana.

The bill was the fifth one that Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, has authored to restore voting rights to ex-convicts since 2013, but was the first to reach the full House.

On April 17, the bill failed 35-53. It was reconsidered on May 2 and earned 51 yea votes and 43 nays, falling two votes short of the 53 needed to pass.

The House floor fell silent Thursday while the votes were tallied. The bill initially passed 61-39. Rep. Chris Leopold, R-Belle Chase, originally voted yes, but later changed his vote to no.

Upon passage, Smith received applause from her fellow legislators. Rep. Walt Leger, a Democratic leader from New Orleans, crossed the chamber to hug Smith, who said it was a "great day."

"This sends a message that our citizens who may have committed a crime are still citizens and all citizens have the right to vote," Smith said. "They are paying taxes, they are raising families, so this just gives them the feeling now that they truly are citizens and now are able to vote on all of the things that impact their lives."

Sarah Omojola, policy counsel for the Southern Poverty Law Center, praised the vote as a way to acknowledge efforts by people who had been jailed to reintegrate into society.

"Voter restoration is essential to successful re-entry, strong communities and an important step to the kind of criminal justice system Louisianans deserve," she said.

In the past, critics expressed concerns about restoring the voting rights and said the bill did not adequately address the process for re-registering felons. No legislators spoke in opposition on the House floor before Thursday's vote.

The bill will now be considered by the Senate Committee for Governmental Affairs. Smith said she has "high hopes" of the bill will pass the Senate.

Drew White contributed to this report.

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