By MELINDA DESLATTE
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) – After years of fighting for the change, an effort to restore the voting rights of thousands of Louisiana’s convicted felons still serving probation and parole was successful Thursday, winning final passage amid cheers, high-fives and hugs.
A 54-42 House vote gave final passage to the bill by Rep. Patricia Smith, a Baton Rouge Democrat who had faced repeated defeat for the proposal. The measure squeaked out of the chamber, reaching the governor’s desk with one vote more than it needed.
Gov. John Bel Edwards intends to sign the change into law, according to spokesman Richard Carbo. It will take effect on March 1, 2019.
Smith needed three votes this session to even get the measure out of the House for consideration in the Senate, which backed the legislation in a 24-13 vote Wednesday. Convicted felons seeking passage of the legislation spent hours talking to lawmakers and walking the halls of the Louisiana Capitol, building support.
In the face of opposition that threatened to strand the proposal at its last step, supporters gave impassioned speeches about rehabilitation and redemption, invoking God and forgiveness and pleading with their House colleagues to consider the bill.
“How long do you punish someone for a wrong?” asked Rep. Katrina Jackson, a Monroe Democrat. “It’s a funny thing about forgiveness. We want it, but we don’t often give it.”
Smith said about 3,500 people could regain the right to vote under the legislation.
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.
Supporters of restoring voting rights had challenged the current law in court, but they’d been unsuccessful.
Smith’s bill will allow someone on probation or parole for a felony to register to vote after being out of prison for five years, though not someone convicted of a felony involving election fraud or other election offenses.
Opponents said people on parole have a chance of going back to prison if they violate any terms of their parole. They said part of the sentence includes the post-conviction time.
“You’ve done something pretty significant to be on parole that long,” said Rep. Sherman Mack, a Republican from Albany.
Smith replied: “Just because they made a mistake, we hold a mistake over them for the rest of their life?”
Rep. Steve Pylant, a Republican former sheriff from Winnsboro, objected to suggestions that lawmakers took away someone’s voting rights.
“They broke the law,” he said.
Supporters of the legislation said the felons seeking the restoration of their voting rights have served their time, have jobs and pay taxes. They said people who are allowed to participate in their democracy are less likely to reoffend and return to prison.
Rep. Ted James, a Baton Rouge, pointed to the back of the House chamber, where Checo Yancy, a convicted felon out of prison for years, sat and watched the vote after lobbying for voting rights restoration for years.
“He deserves the opportunity to participate in his government,” James said.
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