By Paul Braun and Drew White, LSU Manship School News Service
BATON ROUGE–A felon voting rights bill squeaked through its final legislative hurdle on Thursday when the House voted 54-42, one more vote than the minimum needed, to agree to a minor amendment that the Senate had made. The unexpected cliffhanger came even though the bill, which would restore voting rights to individuals on probation or parole who have been out of prison for five years, had already passed both houses. The Republican-led House had a chance to reignite debate on the issue as it considered an amendment that the Senate had adopted Wednesday without any objection.
“In a week, what changed?” Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, asked. “You weren’t wrong seven days ago when we voted for this bill,” he added. “Your hearts were in the right place.” Rep. Sherman Mack, R-Albany, said he agreed that felons who had served their probation for five years should have the right to vote, but parole was different. “The issue is when you’re on parole, you always have a chance, if you violate your parole, of going back to prison,” Mack said. He argued that if an individual was on parole for over five years, “you’ve done something pretty significant to have parole for that number of years.” Rep. Beryl Amedee, R-Houma, argued that individuals still on parole or probation should not be allowed to vote because they were still incarcerated, whether he or she was located inside or outside the prison walls. “No one took their right to vote away,” Amedee said of felons. “They did it when they committed an action.”
If the bill did not receive a majority vote in the House to concur with the Senate amendment, the bill would have gone to a conference committee comprised of members of both Houses to try to work out the difference. At times during the debate, which lasted more than an hour, representatives on both sides of the issue cited their religious beliefs as justification for their positions. “I am so glad that God doesn’t punish the way Louisiana punishes because some of us would still be paying for sins and wrongdoings in our past,” Rep. Katrina Jackson, D-Bastrop, said. “Just because God forgives us, it doesn’t mean we don’t have to pay for our sins,” Rep. Steve Pylant, R-Winnsboro, countered. Sen. Neil Riser, R-Columbia, introduced the Senate amendment that ended up rekindling the House debate. It would exclude individuals who had been convicted of election fraud from voting until the full term of their sentence had passed.
However, the amendment is not likely to affect individuals convicted of only that crime. The maximum sentence for election fraud is five years and matches the length of time an individual must be out on parole without incident. The Senate adopted the amendment without objection, and Riser ultimately voted against the bill. In his support for the bill, Rep. Walt Leger said House Republicans, who were largely silent when the bill was passed in the House last week, used what would typically be a perfunctory vote to reconsider the legislation as a whole. “This is a game,” Leger said. Rep. Patricia Smith, D-Baton Rouge, who sponsored the bill, “is asking you to concur on the Senate amendments, but there are no real Senate amendments,” Leger added. “This is just their opportunity to put this bill back before this body in an attempt to kill it.” “Don’t be someone who votes against participating in the American system of government,” Leger said. “Don’t be someone who votes to continue to take away people’s rights to express their will at the voting booth. Don’t be someone who chooses the wrong position on this bill.”
All of the House Democrats, its three Independents and 14 Republicans voted to accept the amendment. Only Republicans voted no. Rep. Gary Carter, D-New Orleans, was absent at the time of the vote and later voted to concur the Senate amendment. The bill now goes to Gov. John Bel Edwards, who has said he expects to sign the bill. If Edwards endorses it, the bill would take effect next March 1. A state appellate court earlier this month refused to reconsider its April ruling upholding a ban on felons’ right to vote. The Louisiana Supreme Court will hear a case later this year regarding felons’ voting rights because Smith’s bill does not cover all of voting restrictions that ex-offenders deal with.