Bruce Reilly has been out of prison since 2005, but on Friday he did something he hasn’t been able to do since he moved to Louisiana years ago ― he registered to vote.
Friday was the first day the state legally permitted Reilly to get on the voter rolls. A new law went into effect allowing people with a felony conviction to vote while still serving their sentence as long as they haven’t been incarcerated within the last five years. It’s a change estimated to affect up to 36,000 people in the state on probation or parole for felony convictions.
Since the 1970s, Louisiana has blocked anyone under an “order of imprisonment” from voting and considered probation and parole to be a part of that order. It’s a policy that blocked 69,211 people from being able to vote after they were released from prison, according to a 2016 estimate by The Sentencing Project.
But despite the formal expansion of voting rights, Reilly is concerned state officials aren’t taking proper steps to maximize the impact of the law. He noted people with felonies who now qualify to vote have to first go in person to their probation or parole officer to get a certificate confirming their eligibility and then appear in person before an election official to register. It’s also unclear whether people who go to jail for parole violations lose their voting rights. Reilly also noted Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin (R) doesn’t appear to be doing much to publicize the change in the law, other than updating a pamphlet given to probation and parole officers.
Tyler Brey, an Ardoin spokesman, did not respond to several requests for comment on what his office was doing to communicate the change. Louisiana Secretary of State’s website had no mention of the change Monday, except for a brief reference in a list of voting qualifications.
A similar scenario has played out in other states that changed their laws to expand the number of people with felony convictions eligible to vote. Alabama lawmakers in 2017 passed a law clarifying which felonies barred people from voting, but Secretary of State John Merrill (R) did little to help people understand the change. Last November, Floridians approved a ballot measure doing away with the state’s policy of permanently disenfranchising people with felony convictions, but the state’s top election official didn’t issue any guidance on how to implement the change before it went into effect.
Blair Bowie, a lawyer at the Campaign Legal Center who has worked to publicize the voting change in Alabama said advocacy groups have had to do the difficult work of educating people that the secretary of state won’t.
“Many people who were legally given the right to vote back in 2017 still believe that they cannot vote,” she said in an email. “Non-profits, like the Alabama Voting Rights Project, have stepped in to fill this gap, but the Secretary of State’s office has the ability to reach this targeted population more effectively while spending fewer resources.”
Reilly, the deputy director of Voice of the Experienced, a group that has pushed aggressively for the change, said it took him about an hour and a half to register to vote on Friday. He said requiring people to carry records between two different government offices was pointless because election officials should be able to electronically check corrections records.
“One way of looking at it is the secretary of state is under no obligation to care who votes or not. And if one person votes, it just has to be a fair election,” Reilly said. “Another way of looking at it is the secretary of state and the local registrars, they should hang their hat on their participation levels. And if you have low participation levels, then maybe you should hire somebody else.”
“If you had a store and you haven’t been selling too many coffees lately, you might look for a new manager,” he added.
The change in Louisiana comes amid a push across the country to reconsider policies that restrict when people with felony convictions can vote. The policies vary widely from state to state and many are remnants from the Jim Crow south designed to block African-Americans from voting after the passage of the 14th and 15th Amendments guaranteeing them the right to vote.
Reilly’s own story illustrates how confusing it can be to figure out if you can vote with a felony conviction. Reilly, who was paroled for a murder conviction in 2005, told HuffPost he won’t formally finish his sentence until 2038. Shortly after he was released from prison, he helped lead a successful ballot initiative in Rhode Island to allow people to vote while on probation or parole. But when he moved to Louisiana in 2011, he lost the right to vote because of the state’s law.
“It’s just exhausting. The thing is it just reminded me of how difficult it is to just manage life with a conviction. Everything requires an extra step, or two, or three,” Reilly said. “Just to get a crumb, you gotta go an extra mile. Just to get something so basic as the right to vote. Look at what I’ve had to do to get my right to vote.”
This story has been updated with comment from Bowie.