NEW ORLEANS, Oct. 23, 2020 /PRNewswire/ -- Voice of the Experienced (VOTE), a Louisiana-based grassroots organization founded and run by formerly incarcerated people, has issued a demand letter to Louisiana Secretary of State R. Kyle Ardoin and Commissioner of Elections Sherri Wharton Hadsky alleging they have violated the National Voter Registration Act. The group is urging the state to remove administrative barriers blocking formerly incarcerated Louisianans from registering to vote.
The demand letter comes on the heels of the historic passage of Act 636 in 2018, legislation spearheaded by VOTE to provide an avenue for more than 40,000 disenfranchised people with felony convictions to have their voting rights restored. Two years after the law's implementation, people newly eligible to vote under Act 636—as well as people who were already eligible under existing law—continue to face barriers to voter registration. These barriers include the disenfranchisement of those sentenced to probation, and then requiring paperwork, provided in-person, proving they are not incarcerated. Additionally, people whose probation or prison sentences expired decades ago are also being required to provide in-person documentation proving that they are no longer incarcerated. Crowell & Moring LLP represents VOTE.
"This country is built upon our rights, and the ability to exercise those rights," said Norris Henderson, Founder and Executive Director of VOTE. "This is why we are holding events across the country on Saturday, from Louisiana to California, Florida to New York, and many parts in between; we need to both celebrate our right to vote while bringing attention to those who are taking away our inalienable right as Americans. In 2020, we are all about going from chains to change, and we are here to unlock the vote."
The letter is being sent ahead of Free the Vote! Formerly Incarcerated People Vote Day, a national day of action on Saturday, October 24 to celebrate the voting rights of formerly incarcerated people and voters with convictions. Louisianans in five locations will vote in solidarity with Florida Rights Restoration Coalition and other members of Formerly Incarcerated Convicted People and Families Movement. National data recently released by the Sentencing Project indicates that 5.2 million Americans—one out of every 44 adults in this country—are unable to vote due to a current or previous felony conviction. One in 16 Black Americans of voting age are unable to vote due to felony disenfranchisement policies, a rate 3.7 times greater than non-Black Americans.
"Voting is important to me, not just as a citizen, but as a father and as a business owner and community leader. I have a right to vote, a right to shape the future of my neighborhood—but for months, the state stood in the way of my voter registration," said Mack Terrance, a formerly incarcerated New Orleanian who is eligible to vote but encountered significant burdens in his attempts to register; he finally was able to finish registering this week. "This should not have been so difficult. I know that a lot of folks like me won't have the time or the chance to jump through all these hoops and finish their registration. My community should not be denied the chance to weigh in on the politicians and policies that impact us."
The letter alleges that Louisianans are being inappropriately removed from the voting rolls and unlawfully required to provide documentation to register. State officials are also imposing unnecessary and onerous requirements on formerly incarcerated people attempting to register to vote, including requiring in-person appearances at Registrar of Voters offices and Parole and Probation offices to obtain paperwork and data already in the possession of the Secretary of State and the Department of Public Safety and Corrections. These requirements allegedly violate the NVRA, pose an undue burden on affected individuals, and create unnecessary risks during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The demand letter was sent on VOTE's behalf by Professor Bill Quigley of Loyola University New Orleans, College of Law, Advancement Project National Office, and Crowell & Moring LLP.
"Act 636 was long overdue victory for Louisianans' voting rights. VOTE's ability to win this progress in the state that invented the 'Grandfather Clause' is a testament to their ability to organize and build the power of formerly incarcerated Louisianans," said Professor Bill Quigley of Loyola University New Orleans, College of Law. "Under 636, people on parole with felony records have the right to vote as long as they have been out for five years. This new law, combined with existing law, also gave many people on probation the right to vote. However, the State is failing to uphold formerly incarcerated peoples' fundamental voting rights; we will not stop fighting the forces that seek to suppress people's voices."
"Louisiana is failing to uphold the voting rights of its citizens. Whether this is a product of bad intention or mere administrative mistake, the effect is the same—Louisianans who are fully eligible to vote are being disenfranchised," said Gilda Daniels, Director of Litigation for Advancement Project National Office. "In 2018, VOTE dragged Louisiana out of its Jim Crow past by leading the movement to pass Act 636, restoring voting rights to people on parole and most people on probation. This was an important step in the fight for voting rights in Louisiana—but the State's disorganized and uneven implementation of the law and continued barriers to voter registration for all people with felony convictions threaten to upend the progress that VOTE and Louisiana organizers have won. The State must act swiftly to repair this harm."
"The right to vote is the cornerstone of our democracy, and that right is being denied to thousands of eligible voters in Louisiana," said Mike Lieberman, partner at Crowell & Moring, LLP, a law firm representing VOTE. "This is a fixable problem. The State should take action today to ensure that voters with felony convictions are not stripped of the right to vote when they are clearly eligible under the law, and to remove unnecessary and onerous administrative hurdles that are preventing eligible voters with felony convictions from having their voting rights restored. All eligible voters deserve the right to be registered, and to have their vote counted."
VOTE is a grassroots organization founded and run by formerly incarcerated people (FIP), our families and our allies. We are dedicated to restoring the full human and civil rights of those most impacted by the criminal (in)justice system. Together we have the experiences, expertise and power to improve public safety in Louisiana and beyond without relying on mass incarceration.
Advancement Project National Office is a next-generation, multi-racial civil rights organization. Rooted in the great human rights struggles for equality and justice, we exist to fulfill America's promise of a caring, inclusive and just democracy. We use innovative tools and strategies to strengthen social movements and achieve high impact policy change. Visit www.advancementproject.org/home
Crowell & Moring LLP is an international law firm with approximately 550 lawyers representing clients in litigation and arbitration, regulatory, and transactional matters. The firm is internationally recognized for its representation of Fortune 500 companies in high-stakes litigation, as well as its ongoing commitment to pro bono service and diversity. The firm has offices in Washington, D.C., New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Orange County, London, Brussels, and Shanghai.