By The Sentencing Project
Thousands of people with felony convictions regained their right to vote under a new law that went into effect in March. The law expanded voter eligibility to anyone with a felony conviction who has not been incarcerated within the last five years, including individuals on probation or parole. Currently, the burden falls on the individual to alert their probation or parole officer that they are eligible to vote. The advocacy group, VOTE, has been coordinating efforts to educate people about the new law and putting up posters in probation and parole offices.
Three weeks after the law went into effect, over 50 people have sought to have their voting rights restored. “I’m sure we haven’t seen the full scope of the people coming in to see if they are qualified and if they are registering to vote,” said Louisiana Department of Corrections spokesman Ken Pastorick. Legislation has been prefiled for the next House session that could streamline the registration process and clarify how the law should operate.
A bill to restore voting rights to people on community supervision is expected to pass the Democratic-controlled House. “These are people we say are fit to sit on a city bus with our grandparents, who are fit to walk in our neighborhoods, who are fit to be in the grocery store next to our children, but who we are saying are unfit to vote,” said St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter at a press conference. “It is arbitrary, and there’s no good reason to say our communities are better off.”
The legislation is unlikely to be heard in the Republican-controlled Senate. However, there are signs of bipartisan support around shortening the state’s probation period, resulting in voting rights being restored sooner. Legislation HF 689 would cap probation supervision to five years except for those convicted of murder or sexual assault. Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka says he is opposed to restoring voting rights to people on probation but is open to looking into reforming the state’s long probation periods.
Tennessee’s felony disenfranchisement laws are among the strictest and most complex in the nation. The state is unique in prohibiting people with felony convictions from voting due to outstanding child support payments. A House panel recently passed a bill that would automatically restore voting rights to individuals who have completed their sentence, and remove the requirement that all outstanding legal financial obligations, including child support, be paid.
“We’ve put too many hurdles in place,” said Republican Rep. Michael Curcio, who is sponsoring the legislation. “We just felt like it was an injustice to couple the nonpayment of those fines and fees to your constitutionally protected right to vote.”