Civil Rights Groups to File Appeal to Affirm Right to Vote in Louisiana
Voting Should Be Accessible To All Eligible Voters
Baton Rouge, La. – Today, two civil rights groups signaled their intent to appeal a trial court ruling that allows Louisiana to continue to deny the ballot to tens of thousands of Louisianans.
Advancement Project’s national office, a civil rights and racial justice organization, is filing the appeal in the Louisiana Court of Appeal on behalf of Voice of the Experienced, or “VOTE,” a New Orleans-based, member-driven, grassroots non-profit organization run by formerly incarcerated persons and allies, and eight individual plaintiffs. The groups contend that all resident citizens should have access to the ballot.
“At stake in this case is more than just the legal interpretation of the Louisiana constitution; the case also asks the moral question: which Louisianans deserve to have a voice?” said Norris Henderson, Executive Director of VOTE. “Our neighbors, cousins, and fellow community members should not have a wedge driven between us. People are working, paying taxes, and contributing to our communities. Everybody has a voice, and we all have a role in shaping what Louisiana looks like. It is time for the courts to protect the fundamental right to vote for all citizens.”
The case, VOTE v. Louisiana, seeks to restore the right to vote for approximately 71,000 people who are not incarcerated, but living under community supervision as our neighbors, family members, and co-workers.
Louisiana denies the right to vote to people behind bars. It also bars from voting 40,000 people who are convicted of a felony and sentenced to community probation, along with 30,000 who have returned to their communities on parole. Each year, thousands of people are removed from this list while thousands more take their place, as Louisiana has more police and prisons per capita than anywhere in the nation.
“I fought a war for this country and I take pride in that sacrifice,” said Kenneth Johnston, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. “We fought for an America that sometimes exists in name only. When I came home from Vietnam, life wasn’t easy on me or on a lot of other people. That still goes on today. Sometimes we go back to tough circumstances, and end up in bad situations. We deal with addiction, mental illness, homelessness, and incarceration more than those who never went in combat. We shouldn’t be dealing with these things alone. And then there are laws like this, telling us we can’t vote based on a criminal conviction. Denying my voting rights is denying my United States citizenship. What’s next? Will they take away my service record?”
The deprivation of the right to vote affects Louisianans of different backgrounds and races. Still, the practice disproportionately disenfranchises African Americans.
While Black people make up about 32.5 percent of the population of Louisiana, they comprise 50 percent of those on probation and 61 percent of those under parole supervision.
“At this time, Louisianans are beginning to acknowledge the broad and counter-productive impacts of the criminal justice system on our state,” said Bruce Reilly, Deputy Director of VOTE. “The 2017 legislative session raised some crucial questions on how best to deal with rehabilitation, reentry, and sentences that make sense. Everyone from the governor to the district attorneys to the probation officers recognized the importance of systemic reform – as our $700 billion imprisonment budget can do so much better. Those who believe in second chances and giving people the opportunity to do the right thing must also do more. They need to encourage every last resident of Louisiana to conduct themselves as good citizens, not block people from doing so. The right to vote is a basic right of citizenship, and participating in our democracy is a practice we need in all our neighbors, from every parish. The people who framed and ratified the 1974 Louisiana Constitution guaranteed the power of the vote to all persons in Louisiana who are not incarcerated. The trial court judge himself called his own ruling against us ‘unfair.’ It is morally right and common sense to stop denying our neighbors’ voices.”
“All across the state, thousands of Louisianans are eager to regain their due voice in the political process,” said Donita Judge, Co-Program Director of the Power and Democracy Program at Advancement Project’s national office. “These are friends and family members who live and work in communities with other Louisianans. The framers of the state constitution did not intend to take away their voice, and it is wrong to do so. No one should be deprived of their fundamental right to vote.”
VOTE began in 1987 as the Angola Special Civics Project, a group at the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola run by prisoners who had become paralegals. Since then, VOTE has successfully registered thousands of voters and won several major policy victories, including parole reform and Ban the Box.
VOTE and eight individual plaintiffs filed the case in Louisiana state court on July 1, 2016. The trial court, in an oral ruling from the bench on March 13, 2017, granted summary judgment for the State. In today’s filing, VOTE is submitting its motion to appeal the decision to the Louisiana Court of Appeal for the First Circuit.
The case challenges the constitutionality of disenfranchising people on probation or parole, arguing that the 1974 Louisiana Constitution prohibits only incarcerated people from voting and the inclusion of non-incarcerated people was not the intention of the Convention, nor the intention of the Louisiana voters who ratified the overall document. Click here to view the plaintiff’s motion and order to appeal.
Advancement Project is a multi-racial civil rights organization. Founded by a team of veteran civil rights lawyers in 1999, Advancement Project was created to develop and inspire community-based solutions based on the same high quality legal analysis and public education campaigns that produced the landmark civil rights victories of earlier eras.