Nearly 700,000 people in the state of Louisiana have been stripped of their voting rights due to the fact they’re a convicted felon or out on parole. Those same people are now suing the state with hopes of having their voting rights restored.
The plaintiffs filed a lawsuit Friday, asserting that they had been ““wrongfully excluded from registering to vote and voting” based on a 1974 law that disallowed the voting rights of imprisoned felons, according to a copy of the complaint obtained by Buzzfeed.
Louisiana’s voter disenfranchisement law was originally written into the state’s constitution in 1974, permitting any citizen over the age of 18 to register and vote – “except that this right may be suspended while a person …is under an order of imprisonment for conviction of a felony.” Two years later, the state added a law that barred those out on parole or probation from voting as well.
Ex-offenders argue that the 1967 addition of individuals on parole and probation severely “overhauled” voter disenfranchisement in the state, Buzzfeed reports.
The class action suit comes on the heels of the Louisiana state legislature’s failure to pass House Bill 958. According to the news site, the legislation would have limited the stoppage of person’s voting rights to equal the amount of time they spent incarcerated. Though the bill’s failure was a disappointment, legislator’s did approve a “Ban the Box” bill earlier this year, making it illegal to ask someone to disclose their criminal history on a state job application.
The state of Kentucky suffered a similar blow when republican Gov. Matt Bevin prevented the restoration of voting rights for convicted felons. According to Atlanta Black Star, Bevin used his executive power to overturn the promise of his democratic predecessor Steve Beshear.
“While I have been a vocal supporter of the restoration of rights, it is an issue that must be addressed through the legislature and by the will of the people,” Bevin said concerning the order.
Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe took a different route by allowing over 200,000 ex-offenders in his state to register to vote in the upcoming presidential election. The change applied to all non-violent felons who completed their sentences and were released from supervised probation or parole, the Washington Post reports.
“Once you have served your time and you’ve finished up your supervised parole. . .I want you back as a full citizen of the commonwealth,” McAuliffe said. “I want you to have a job. I want you paying taxes, and you can’t be a second-class citizen.”
The governor’s restoration efforts were soon countered by a lawsuit from the GOP. According to the Washington Post, republican state legislators filed a complaint with the Supreme Court of Virginia, arguing that McAuliffe, a Democrat, exceeded his authority in April when he “restored voting rights to felons en masse instead of individually.”
“Governor McAuliffe has falsely suggested that Virginia’s felon disenfranchisement provision was first introduced into the Constitution after the Civil War for the purpose of disenfranchising African-Americans,” the lawsuit read. “But Virginia has prohibited felons from voting since at least 1830 — decades before African-Americans could vote.”
Things in Louisiana haven’t gotten this ugly…yet.
Friday’s lawsuit was filed by Louisiana-based organization Voice of the Ex-Offender (VOTE) and named several convicted felons who shared stories of how voter disenfranchisement affected them, Buzzfeed reports.
One of the named plaintiffs is 67-year-old Kenneth Johnson, an African-American man living in New Orleans. Johnson served 22 years in jail after returning from Vietnam with post-traumatic stress disorder. The war veteran was convicted of felony murder in the robbery and fatal shooting of another Vietnam veteran in 1972, according to the news site.
Johnson founded the Veterans Incarcerated program during his time behind bars. Upon his release in 1993, he also established a successful paralegal business working alongside lawyers in New Orleans.
Unfortunately, because his conviction carries a lifetime parole sentence, Johnson will never be able to vote under Louisiana’s current law, Buzzfeed reports.
“Despite his service to his country, his successful transition back to the community, his contribution to the federal and state governments by paying his taxes, he will never have the opportunity to vote and participate in the democratic process before he dies,” the lawsuit states.
In addition to the state’s tough voter disenfranchisement laws, Louisiana is also home to the arrest capital of the United States. According to Fusion, police in the city of Gretna, Louisiana made a total of 6,566 adult arrests in 2013, 14 times the rate of arrests in an average American town.
Two-thirds of those arrested were African-American, most of the time for drug-related offenses.