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A dispute over 4 words in Louisiana’s state constitution is keeping 70,000 people from voting today

“I can bring my wife to vote, but I have to sit in the car and watch her go in.”

Checo Yancy isn’t allowed to vote, so he’s driving others to the polls on Election Day. CREDIT: Aviva Shen
Checo Yancy isn’t allowed to vote, so he’s driving others to the polls on Election Day. CREDIT: Aviva Shen

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA — Checo Yancy spent the morning driving voters through the rain to the polls in Baton Rouge. But he will go to jail if he tries to vote himself.

That’s because he is on probation for the next 50 years. In Louisiana, former felons can vote, but people who are currently on probation or parole are barred from the polls.

“I can bring my wife to vote, but I have to sit in the car and watch her go in,” he told ThinkProgress. “It’s not a good feeling.”

Yancy, a veteran who was serving life in Angola for kidnapping and cocaine possession before his sentence was commuted, is just one of the estimated 70,000 people in Louisiana who are out of prison but still can’t vote.

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“When you lose your voting rights…people die for this,” he said. “I made a mistake years ago, committed a crime, but the judge never said I couldn’t vote again.”

Yancy is one of the lead plaintiffs of a lawsuit that argues the state law banning parolees and probationers from the polls violates the state constitution.

“I can bring my wife to vote, but I have to sit in the car and watch her go in. It’s not a good feeling.”

The lawsuit, filed by the organization Voice of the Ex-Offender (VOTE), hinges on four words of the Louisiana constitution. The state constitution specifies that voting rights can only be revoked if a person is judicially declared mentally incompetent or “under order of imprisonment” for a felony, which people on parole and probation are technically not.

“I pay taxes, but it’s taxation without representation. Nobody does what I want them to do, but they still take my tax dollars,” Yancy pointed out.

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The law also has a clear racial impact on voting rights, as the majority of probationers and parolees in the state are black. Louisiana incarcerates more of its population than any other state or country in the world. One out of every 26 adults in the state are either incarcerated, paroled, or on probation. That means one out of every 26 adults in the state can’t vote.

Bruce Reilly, attorney and deputy director of VOTE. CREDIT: Free America
Bruce Reilly, attorney and deputy director of VOTE. CREDIT: Free America

A judge allowed the lawsuit to advance last week, but refused to certify the class of 70,000 people seeking their voting rights. VOTE executive director Norris Henderson said they filed a motion Monday protesting that decision. Any ruling that only impacts the ten named plaintiffs would still leave thousands in the lurch, Henderson said.

“Some folks before this case is decided may roll off of probation,” Henderson said. “Some may roll off parole, some may never get off parole. So it’s all different degrees of status.”

Yancy is still holding out hope that he’ll get to vote someday. “I’ll be 71 this month so I want to at least get a vote,” he said.

Aviva Shen, a former ThinkProgress editor, is now a freelance writer in New Orleans focused on criminal justice.