State political observers, activists and even members of the Louisiana legislature are shocked about the effects of a law passed in the 2018 Regular Session. They claim to be surprised a law is more far-reaching than intended.
Act 636 restores the voting rights of those who have been on parole for five or more years after their incarceration. Every legislator, for and against, is sure about that aspect of the legislation.
But the controversy is whether or not the legislation restores the voting rights of everyone on probation, regardless of the length of time. Some legislators, even those who voted for it, are not sure about that.
Here’s the text of the relevant part of the law (bold emphasis mine):
a person who is under an order of imprisonment for conviction of a felony and who has not been incarcerated pursuant to the order within the last five years shall not be ineligible to register or vote based on the order if the person submits documentation to the registrar of voters from the appropriate correction official showing that the person has not been incarcerated pursuant to the order within the last five years
According to Nola.com, there’s some confusion about what that text means.
State Rep. Joe Marino, I-Gretna, said he thought the law initially only applied to parolees when he voted for it last spring, but now thinks it might apply to most probationers. Ultimately, the secretary of state, who oversees elections, “is going to have to make the call in interpreting this change that we made,” said Marino, an attorney.
“I think that potentially changes the law to allow people on probation who have not served any time in jail to vote,” he said.
When legislators voted on the bill earlier this year, they thought they were voting on legislation that would’ve impacted a few thousand, at most. While there are 29,000 parolees in Louisiana, most serve their sentence before the five-year time frame and get their voting rights back once their sentence has ended.
Only one legislator, State Rep. John Stefanski (R-Crowley), even bothered to ask about what impact this would have on probationers. But he dropped his line of questioning before he got an answer. He voted no on the legislation.
The text of the legislation is clear. The five-year deadline is only for those who have actually been sent to prison. It does not apply to those on probation. It means the legislature has inadvertently restored voting rights to all those who are on probation, regardless of how long they have been on probation.
If the Louisiana Secretary of State takes a different interpretation of the law, there will likely be a lawsuit. Those suing the Secretary of State should prevail in court based on the text of the law.
As a result, we already have buyer’s remorse over this poorly drafted law.
Marino said he wishes the law, which was debated and voted on more than almost any other legislation, had been drafted more precisely.
“This is probably going to be litigated because they are going to have make a call about whether it includes these people or excludes these people,” he said. “I would say it’s not clear.”
If a law is unclear, a state rep has a duty to vote no on the legislation, regardless of the merits. If you can’t understand the law, and Marino is a lawyer, how the hell is the average citizen supposed to understand the law?
The legislature, in this case, has outsourced its job to the executive branch and the courts. If that’s the case, why the hell do we even a legislature in the first place?
If a citizen claimed they didn’t understand the law in court, the judge would laugh at them. Why do we give legislators a pass for writing vague and unclear laws that we have to live under? We won’t get better legislators until we demand more out of them.
Writing legislation that they can understand would be a good first step to a better legislature.