NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA– As the topic of human rights is more frequently finding it’s way in our conversation, one local organization is fighting against voter suppression and advocating for voter’s rights for the formerly incarcerated.
VOTE NOLA began in Louisiana in 2004, out of the mind of founder Norris Henderson, stemming back to 1975. VOTE stands for Voice of the Experienced. VOTE is made up of a mixture of the formerly incarcerated as well as human rights supporters.
This year, the majority of the country is ready to cast a vote in this fall’s presidential election. Some voters have a criminal past but still want to be part of affecting the future. State by state, laws for individuals with felonies vary. On one hand, you have the state of Main which allows voting from prison. Mississippi and Florida have laws which, based on the crime, can strip an individual’s voting privileges permanently. Last month, a Florida federal judge held that the once required payment of outstanding court fees and fines is unconstitutional.
Louisiana is unique in that is has had the highest imprisonment rate for quite a few years. Potentially, that is a pool of a lot of potential voters. Kim Robinson is a voting commissioner and also a member of VOTE. She says, “The votes of the formerly incarcerated matters, because if they didn’t, politicians wouldn’t be making debates amongst each other.”
In Louisiana last year, voting rights were further restored for thousands of people, with a law that holds: individuals off of probation or parole, individuals who have been on parole for five or more years or are currently on probation are able to register to vote.
Kim says that a lot of people are not aware that the formerly incarcerated do indeed have the right to vote and there is a lot of misinformation out there. She also says, that unless an individual knows their full rights and requirements, they can be easily dismayed or dismissed, saying, “people were misinformed that if you had any type of conviction that you couldn’t vote, which was not true. I wouldn’t always ask people, do you vote and they would say they couldn’t because they had a record. I would ask, how long ago was that and they would say ten or fifteen years and I would say, well you can vote!”
Nziki Wiltz is a local activist, VOTE member and educator who says, “we have had a lot of first time voters that have applied and gotten cleared. I feel the heat this election year, and I’m eager to get the job done. We have been succesful in the past with registering large numbers. We were very succesful with the governor’s race and we look forward to the upcoming election.”
If the goal of incarceration is to rehabilitate and restore, VOTE sees no greater restoration than helping people be an active part in society through voting. The requirements include obtaining a letter from a probation officer, forms of identification and a completed voter registration form. There is no payment required.
Earl Hagans was once incarcerated at Angola for charge involving drugs. While serving time, he became very committed to transitioning to regaining his freedom and becoming an active participant in the policies and decisions of society. Today he is a proud member of VOTE and dedicates his time to helping others who want to make a change in their life towards something better. Earl knows first hand the power forfeited when someone is imprisoned and says that power to vote puts power back in the hands of people who didn’t have it before. It also gives us opportunities to affect the community indirectly so that the social and economic pressures that may have inspire bad choices are a little better for the next generation. “That’s where my control comes in. I have the control to actually put my prospective representatives under scrutiny without them knowing it and help decide if they are the man or the woman for the job.”