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Eliminating Barriers 

Louisiana incarcerates more people per capita than any other state, making it essential that we deal with felony convictions and voting rolls fairly and accurately.

In mid-August, members of the group VOTE -- Voice Of The Ex-offender -- entered Orleans Parish Prison (OPP) carrying clipboards stacked with voter-registration forms ("Unlocking the Vote," Nov. 2). The group encountered barriers that should be addressed before the next election.

Louisiana law bars inmates from voting only while they are serving out a felony sentence. Gambit Weekly calculations, using data provided by the sheriff, found that about half of local inmates -- nearly 2,500 people -- could be eligible to vote. Some are sitting in OPP serving time on misdemeanor convictions. Many others are "pre-trial detainees," people awaiting trial but unable to make bail.

This spring, a group of highly motivated ex-felons formed VOTE around the idea that voting is "the highest form of rehabilitation that a guy can experience," says VOTE president Norris Henderson. The group has joined dozens of local organizations for voter registration drives, get-out-the-vote efforts, and events such as a recent forum at Southern University New Orleans.

The group also contacted Registrar of Voters Louis Keller about a voter registration drive at OPP. In August, Sheriff William Hunter compiled a list of pre-trial detainees. VOTE members created a video about their voter-registration drive that was shown on all tiers via the prison's television system. The group, accompanied by OPP staff, then entered the prison and registered eligible inmates, tier by tier, in a highly orchestrated effort. As a result, every eligible detainee registered -- 701 people.

As the Sept. 18 election approached, VOTE took absentee-ballot applications to every inmate who'd registered. They submitted them to Louis Keller, who pointed to Section 1303 of the Election Code, which requires that a jailed voter's application for absentee ballot be accompanied by certification "by the sheriff of the parish where the person is incarcerated that he is not a convicted felon." To create the certification required searches through a few different databases for each name, a process too time-consuming for Hunter's staff to accomplish on such short notice. As a result, none of the voters in OPP received an absentee ballot.

VOTE members, along with attorneys from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF), began talking with Keller to ensure that everything would go smoothly on Nov. 2. Once again, Henderson took absentee-ballot applications to every registered inmate who remained incarcerated. Keller received 137 applications, along with certification from Hunter that none of the registrants were currently under a felony sentence. Keller approved 81, but declared the remaining 56 of the 137 ineligible. As first-time voters, who had registered by mail, they could only vote at a polling place, in person, according to Section 115 of the Election Code.

This is new territory for nearly everyone involved. Only a handful of other groups in the nation have undertaken jail-based voter-registration campaigns. Because of the efforts of Hunter, Keller, and VOTE, 81 voters were able to cast ballots on Nov. 2. Looking forward, some changes could make this process much more workable:

• For first-time voters who register by mail, the Election Code already makes exceptions for the elderly, handicapped, military personnel and citizens living overseas. Lawmakers should add an exception for first-time voters who are incarcerated.

• Before this last election, local groups like VOTE registered thousands of voters and then delivered those applications to the clerk's office. Currently, the state considers those applications to be "by mail." However, if Keller's deputized office personnel accompanied those groups on their voter-registration drives, those applications would be considered "in-person" registrations and those new voters would not be barred from voting absentee.

• Prison and court officials already feed information about felony convictions to a central voter-registration system. Other states, including South Dakota and New Mexico, enter those updates in "real time." If Louisiana did this, there would be no need for additional certification from the sheriff. Real-time entries would also allow the Department of Public Safety & Corrections to notify registrars when felons have completed their sentences and are once again able to vote.

Louisiana already has a fairly decent system for this last process -- it rated a B in Purged!, a report released last month by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the public advocacy group Demos. Purged! examined how 15 states handle voting and felony records. Louisiana earned decent grades -- two Bs and a C.

Because this state incarcerates more people per capita than any other, it's essential that we deal with felony convictions and voting rolls fairly and accurately. According to Purged!, 37,684 Louisiana citizens are currently disenfranchised. That's more than 1 percent of the state's population. The Purged! report highlights how much easier it is to maintain these systems without error in the growing number of states that allow probationers and parolees to vote. As Louisiana lawmakers scrutinize these systems, they should also discuss the very purpose of disenfranchisement -- and reconsider whether parolees and probationers should also have access to "the highest form of rehabilitation."

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