An estimated 35,000 people are newly eligible to vote in Louisiana Friday, after a law passed last year restored the right to vote to people who have been out of prison for at least five years but who remain on probation and parole.
“What happened today is we made a watershed moment on voting rights,” said Bruce Reilly, deputy director of Voice of the Experienced (VOTE), which advocated for the legislation. But, Reilly told ThinkProgress, formerly incarcerated people who went to register Friday found themselves stuck in a multi-step process — especially if they wanted to register in time for upcoming elections being held March 30.
“Most people, when they think about voting rights, they think [changing the law] is all it takes,” Reilly said.
But in reality, he said, it’s more like driving a car. You have the right to drive when you’re 16 years old, but you need to get a license. For Reilly and others recently enfranchised under Louisiana’s new law, getting registered to vote — getting a license, so to speak — turned out be a difficult process Friday.
“What we’re finding out today is just how cumbersome it is for myself and others,” Reilly said. “We have several steps we have to go through.”
First, Reilly had to go to the probation and parole office to get paperwork verifying he is eligible to vote. Then, he had to take that paperwork to the registrar’s office. Then, he was faced with a choice: The in-person deadline to register to vote in the March 30 elections was Thursday, but the online deadline is next Saturday. If Reilly wanted to vote later this month, he needed to get to a computer, register online, and then bring the paperwork verifying online registration into the registrar’s office.
That already burdensome process becomes even more difficult for people who don’t have computers. “We have an issue of online access,” Reilly said.
The other choice offered to Reilly was the option to register to vote in person, but doing so meant forfeiting his right to vote later this month.
“There’s a historical precedent for creating extra barriers and steps, and, you know, for the first half of the 20th century in Louisiana, all African American citizens over the age of 18 had the right to vote, but actual black turnout was 10 percent,” Reilly said. “Many of us shake our heads with this woe-of-the-past thing, [saying] that we’ve moved on, but have we?”
Despite the hurdles, Reilly said VOTE worked to register “a few dozen” new voters Friday. (He said they have not yet received total registration numbers from across the state.) Now that they’ve successfully regained the ballot, Reilly said advocates intend to focus their efforts on making registering easier, whether through legislation or negotiation.
Tyler Brey, a spokesperson for the Louisiana Secretary of State’s office, told ThinkProgress their office is open to making changes at some point. But for now, he said, they have to follow existing laws, however inconvenient they may be.
“It’s been really kind of a confusing process,” Brey said in an interview Friday. He added that while the secretary of state’s office ultimately feels good about how the legislation has turned out, “one of the problems has been that… the legislation doesn’t amend current law, so the process by which people will get reinstated was not amended.”
The March 30 elections are to blame for some of the additional steps, according to Brey. If Election Day weren’t so close, the process would be simpler, as everyone would be allowed to register in person.
The implementation of Louisiana’s re-enfranchisement law comes on the heels of Florida’s Amendment 4, which restored voting rights to 1.4 million formerly incarcerated people — also known as returning citizens — when it passed in November. Similar re-enfranchisement efforts are underway in Iowa, where, in January, Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) introduced two resolutions aimed at restoring voting rights to returning citizens in the state.
In Florida and Iowa, people need to finish all the terms of their sentence, including probation or parole, before they are eligible to vote. Louisiana’s new law goes further — allowing people to regain their voting rights while they are still on probation or parole.
Earlier this year, New Mexico also took a major step, as lawmakers advanced two bills that aim to completely eliminate the disenfranchisement of people with felony convictions in the state. The state could soon join Vermont and Maine as the only states in the country that allow people with felony convictions to vote even while in prison.