Voter registration for formerly incarcerated could get streamlined in Louisiana

Bill passes House, heads to Senate

By: - May 19, 2023 2:00 pm
A side on a sidewalk reads Voter Registration Here Today

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House lawmakers approved a bill Thursday that would make voter registration easier for formerly incarcerated people in Louisiana.

House Bill 396, sponsored by state Rep. Sam Jenkins, D-Shreveport, cleared the House floor in a 63-34 bipartisan vote without debate. The bill would require the Louisiana Secretary of State to create an application form that formerly incarcerated people can fill out to request their voter registration be reinstated.

It is a common misperception that convicted felons permanently lose their voting rights in Louisiana. The state constitution states that one’s right to vote may only be suspended while a person is “under an order of imprisonment for conviction of a felony” or has been judicially declared mentally incompetent.

The Louisiana Supreme Court has since interpreted the phrase “order of imprisonment” to include time spent in prison as well as on probation or parole. The state legislature has further expanded the law to include the five years after a person is released from prison. 

So under current statute, convicted felons can register or re-register to vote five years after they get out of prison and are not on probation or parole. They do not need a pardon or an exoneration or expungement.

Although the constitution has been clear for nearly half a century, misperceptions regarding the voting rights of convicted felons continue to exist among the public and some election officials.  

“This committee and the legislature worked to restore voting rights to people who were formerly incarcerated,” Jenkins said at a May 10 hearing of the House and Governmental Affairs Committee. “What happened was after that the process to do it became very convoluted.” 

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The state Department of Corrections is supposed to provide the Secretary of State’s Office with a quarterly updated list of people who should have their voter registrations suspended. The Secretary of State is then supposed to disseminate that information to each parish registrar of voters. However, the procedures to reinstate voter registration aren’t entirely clear or well understood among all election officials.

At the May 10 hearing, several former prisoners testified about the confusion and barriers they ran into when trying to register. 

Gregory Finney told lawmakers the Secretary of State’s Office claimed his voter registration was suspended for his conviction even though he had never previously registered to vote.

Finney was trying to register to vote for the first time in his life after he got out of prison, so his voter registration couldn’t have been suspended because it never existed in the first place. 

Jenkins said the simple addition of a reinstatement form should streamline the process and help election officials distinguish between those whose registrations were suspended while in prison and those registering to vote for the first time. 

There is also confusion about whether an applicant must appear in person to submit their documentation to a parish registrar. Jenkins’ bill would clarify that applicants can submit the documents via mail, fax or any electronic means that the Secretary of State has approved. 

The bill next heads to the Senate for consideration.


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Wesley Muller
Wesley Muller

Wes Muller traces his journalism roots back to 1997 when, at age 13, he built and launched a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. In the years since then, he has freelanced for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and worked on staff at the Sun Herald in Biloxi, WAFB-9News CBS in Baton Rouge, and the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi.