They Got Their Voting Rights Back, But Will They Go to the Polls?
By Nicole Lewis, The Marshall Project
Most Sundays, Clint Williams attends service at one of the biggest churches in New Orleans. In the pews he sometimes finds himself sitting shoulder to shoulder with the city’s black elected officials. Over the years many have asked for his support.
But Williams, 58, has never voted. He’s been on parole for the past 30 years, which, until March, made him ineligible to choose who will represent him in public office. If not for the law change, Williams would have lost the right to vote until he was nearly 80 years old. His parole ends in 2040.
Williams and nearly 37,000 Louisianians who have recently had their voting rights restored by the state legislature are joining a potential wave of new voters from across the country. Last year, Florida elected to restore voting rights to nearly 1.5 million people with felony convictions. And, as of July 1, nearly 77,000 formerly incarcerated people in Nevada will be able to vote in the next election.
The influx of new voters could shape upcoming elections in these states as well as the presidential race in 2020. Florida and Nevada, both increasingly purple swing states, are important prizes to secure an Electoral College victory. While little is known about the political leanings of the formerly incarcerated, many political observers assume they would vote for Democrats. For one, black adults are four times more likely to be barred from voting because of felony disenfranchisement laws, according to the Sentencing Project. And black voters have consistently favored Democrats.
But these assumptions could be overblown. The formerly incarcerated must overcome daunting hurdles, both personal and administrative, in order to vote. In Florida, for example, the legislature required the newly-eligible voters to pay outstanding fines and fees before registering, which critics say is akin to a poll tax. In Louisiana, many of these potential voters are consumed by the struggle to rebuild their own lives after prison. They must also combat the apathy born of their ordeals: In interviews, several formerly incarcerated people said they were not sure that elected officials can make a difference in their lives.
With the voter registration deadline in Louisiana looming for the upcoming gubernatorial primary in October, community organizers are working overtime to reach as many newly eligible voters as possible. Under the new law, people on probation and people who have been on supervision for five years after being released from prison are able to get their voting rights restored. But the state will not automatically inform people who are affected. So the organizers have run ads on social media, put up posters in probation and parole offices, knocked on doors in minority neighborhoods and appeared on local news stations. They’ve even held an eight-city bus tour, with the help of the nonprofit Black Voters Matter Fund, to raise awareness about the change in the law. But turnout was low: Only a handful of people showed up to register.
Checo Yancy, 73, director of voter education with VOTE, the community organization spearheading the voter registration effort, says Louisiana’s secretary of state could be doing much more to inform the new voters and to make the registration process less cumbersome. But for now, voter registration requires two steps. First, the newly enfranchised must pick up a letter of eligibility from their probation or parole officer. Then they must take the letter to the registrar’s office, along with valid ID. A spokesperson for Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
Still, Yancy is undeterred. He once faced a life sentence for kidnapping and other charges before receiving a sentence commutation from the governor in 1995. Ultimately, he spent 20 years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary where he got his start as a political organizer working to improve prison conditions.And he was instrumental in getting the voting law passed last year. In October, he will cast a ballot for the first time in nearly 40 years, and he is optimistic that many of the 37,000 newly eligible voters will head to the voting booth, too.
“We have come from out of prison to do all this, and we are doing it,” he said.
The Marshall Project spoke with several formerly incarcerated people in Louisiana about how they feel about having the right to vote again and whether they plan to exercise it.
Lionel Paul Dugas, 45, New Iberia
Prison has cost Lionel Dugas more than he can count. His job working on an oil rig was the first thing to go. After a few years in prison, his teeth began falling out. Often, he says, the prison medical staff only gave him aspirin to dull the pain radiating through his jaw. Then, after years of physical labor and limited medical care, the feeling in his hands began to fade.
“State prisons will eat you inside out,” he said. “When I say I came out with nothing, I mean I really didn’t have nothing.”
Dugas spent eight years in prison for theft and forgery. In the three years since he has been back home, he’s struggled to rebuild the life he once had. Many formerly incarcerated people say the first few years after prison are the hardest. Landlords are reluctant to rent to them, and job options are often limited. Many struggle to meet their most basic needs.
To get by, Dugas works odd jobs as a painter and a carpenter. From the work he’s able to cobble together, he makes about $1,000 a month. After he pays rent, there’s little left for anything else. To make matters worse, Dugas’s driver's license was suspended for failing to pay outstanding child support. Without a car, he says, it’s hard to get to work. Without work, it’s hard to pay off his debts.
“I struggle so much,” he said.
So on a blistering Monday in July, Dugas came to a rally at Philadelphia Christian Church in Lafayette looking for a fresh start. He’d been attending the church’s programming for newly released prisoners and heard about a rally to register formerly incarcerated people to vote. Dugas didn’t realize that for the past three years he’s been eligible to vote since he is not on parole. He thought a felony conviction barred him indefinitely. Organizers are using the law change as an opportunity to get people like Dugas to the polls.
Dugas admits he doesn’t know enough about politics to understand the differences between Democrats, Republicans or independents. He isn’t sure who he will vote for in the upcoming election, but he wants the nominees to understand the challenges he has faced as a result of his incarceration.
Voting won’t restore the feeling in his hands, pay his debts or get him back on the road. The benefits are mostly spiritual, he says. Registering to vote has given him a sense that he is welcomed back in society.
“These doors are starting to open for me, and it’s scary to walk through doors that have never been open,” he said. “But I am still on the bridge, and I am taking little baby steps.”
Unite the People is a public service organization that provides low cost legal and criminal defense services to the pubic.