In Louisiana, criminal offenders released from prison often linger in the purgatory of parole for years, or even decades, stripped of key civil rights. Because the Bayou State only restores voting rights to felons who complete probation or parole, some who get caught up in the system die before regaining the franchise. Those are the people whom state Rep. Patricia Smith wanted to help last year. Smith introduced a bill to restore voting rights to felons who’ve been on parole without problems for five years after their release from prison, as well as those who are on probation for five years. After three rounds of revisions, the bill passed the House in a squeaker of a vote, sailed through the Senate, and was signed into law as Act 636 by Gov. John Bel Edwards (D) last May. But in December, stories started appearing in the local press suggesting that the law may apply to many more people than the 2,000-3,000 it was expected to affect. The actual number, according to advocacy groups and state prison officials, may be more like 36,000.
Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin (R) has conceded that Act 636 would restore the franchise to thousands more felons than anticipated. His office is now tasked with sorting out the law’s implementation with only weeks to go before it goes into effect on March 1.
Smith and Voice of the Experienced (VOTE), an ex-offender advocacy group that backed the measure, insist they were never trying to mislead anyone or create confusion. They maintain that officials surprised by the varying numbers were simply not paying attention to what the law said.