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Voting Rights for 70,000 Louisiana Felons Sought in Constitutional Challenge

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Voice of the Ex-Offender (VOTE) and 8 individuals filed a class action voting rights challenge for 70,000 people in Louisiana saying they are illegally prohibited from voting. The VOTE suit charges that the Louisiana legislature wrongfully and unconstitutionally passed a law disallowing people convicted of felonies from voting if they are on probation or parole.

VOTE’s suit points out that the Louisiana Constitution only prohibits people who are “under an order of imprisonment” from voting and that this was intended only to prohibit people actually in prison or escapees from voting. The VOTE suit further notes that the Louisiana state constitutional convention voted down an attempt to restrict voting for people on probation.

The class action lawsuit was filed on behalf of the 70,000 people in Louisiana who are probation or parole. The US Department of Justice reports over 41,000 people in Louisiana are on probation and over 27,000 are on parole.

It was filed in Baton Rouge and names the State of Louisiana, the Governor and the Secretary of State as defendants.

VOTE is an organization that began in 1987 as the Angola Special Civics Project, a group at the Louisiana Penitentiary run by prisoners who had become paralegals. VOTE, now run by Norris Henderson, was officially created in 2003 when it focused on voter registration for pre-trial detainees and people convicted of misdemeanors. Henderson is a nationally recognized expert in human rights for prisoners and ex-offenders.

VOTE has registered thousands of people to vote. It educates the public about the collateral consequences of convictions that inhibit successful reentry. Vote has partnered with Tulane Medical School to provide medical care for people leaving prison and has partnered with other organizations to win several recent victories including Ban the Box and a new public housing policy.

Eight individuals also joined VOTE in filing the suit in Baton Rouge.  All work and pay taxes but are not allowed to register or vote. The individuals who filed the suit include the following.

Kenneth Johnston, 67, served in Vietnam and attended University of New Orleans before becoming addicted to heroin in part to address the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder he acquired in Vietnam. He spent 22 years in prison after a felony conviction and has been out for 23 years.   Because he is on parole for life he will never be allowed to vote.

Bruce Reilly, 42, Deputy Director of VOTE, is a graduate of Tulane University law school who has won numerous awards for his work. He spent 13 years in prison in Rhode Island and has been out for 11 years. Although he can vote in Rhode Island when he moved to Louisiana, he lost the right to vote until 2035 when his parole ends.

Dwight Anderson, 40, who attended Southern University, works for CeaseFire New Orleans counselling high risk young people and others in order to reduce shootings and violence in the city.   After spending five months in jail for felony drug convictions he was sentenced to probation for ten years and is not allowed to vote until 2017.

Randy Tucker, 57, has run his own business since 2006. He serves as a Deacon at Israel Baptist Church. As a result of a felony conviction he spent 25 years in prison till his release in 2003. Because he is on probation until 2065, he will likely never be allowed to vote.

Bill Vo, 31, is a student in Information Technology at the University of New Orleans. Because he spent six months in federal prison for felony drug possession and is on probation until 2017, he is not allowed to vote.

Checo Yancy is the president of the Louisiana chapter of Citizens United for Rehabilitation of Errants (CURE). He is an active member of the Grace and Compassion Church in Baton Rouge, a member of the Kairos Angola Advisory Board and an active volunteer with Promise Keepers – Men of Integrity. He served 20 years in Angola for a felony conviction and has been out on parole for 12 years and will remain on parole until 2029.

Ashanti Witherspoon, 66, is a pastor and has earned a Doctorate in Theology. He is involved with the Baton Rouge Violence Elimination Program (BRAVE) and speaks before schools, universities, churches, government and community organizations. He was convicted of a felony in the early 1970s, was imprisoned for 25 years until he was released on parole in 1999.

The case is expected to be heard by the end of 2016.

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Bill Quigley teaches law at Loyola University New Orleans and can be reached at quigley77@gmail.com.

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