“Citizenship means standing up for everyone’s right to vote,” Obama said. But does he, and other politicians truly mean it? At a recent forum featuring four candidates for the New Orleans sheriff election, I asked a question regarding voting rights to understand their views on democracy. I wanted to know if any candidates sought support from all people in the city. From their responses, it seemed that none were accurately aware that 7000 of their neighbors, including me, are disenfranchised.
Louisiana has approximately 45,000 people living in the community on probation and parole, with 7000 being supervised in New Orleans. These people live in every district, pay taxes, work, raise families, and are denied the most fundamental right of democracy: voting. It is the most basic right of citizenship, as recognized by the U.S. Supreme Court and the United Nations. Those denied the right to vote are essentially “stateless persons” or internally displaced refugees. They, arguably, have fewer rights than a foreign citizen.
None of the candidates appeared overly familiar with the issue, and they presented little analysis or rationale other than the understandable instinct that stripping someone of all their rights is an acceptable punishment for crime. Only one candidate, Ira Thomas, was available to speak with me. After explaining a few basic elements of the situation, he expressed a willingness to work on the issue and truly encourage people to act like, and be, full citizens of the city. He is also the only candidate who has not overseen part of 40 years of failure, corruption, and death at the Orleans Parish Prison.
Most people on probation never went to prison. Most of them committed lesser crimes, or served their time, which is the only way they are able to be out in the community. The judge released them from court with a caveat: stay out of trouble for a while, and you can escape the Sword of Damocles that is suspended over you. Judges and probation officers expect people to hold an honest job or go to school, and live in peace. No judge ever sentenced a person to stop voting, or to be homeless and unemployed.
The Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) recently agreed to ease their policy on excluding entire families where one person has a criminal record. This change stemmed from the organizing efforts and technical expertise of Voice of the Ex-Offender (VOTE) and Stand With Dignity. Similarly, Mayor Landrieu has decided to “Ban the Box” for the city, allowing people with criminal histories a realistic chance to apply for a job by holding back those questions until the interview. These moves are a direct response to the nationwide over-criminalization of people during the previous three decades.
People who are encouraged to be part of the community are more likely to abide by the law. People with jobs are less likely to need illegal activity to pay the bills. Ultimately those who are doing the right thing are those who want to show up and cast a vote. But this isn’t even about criminal justice policy, rehabilitation, and reentry. It is about democracy, and more nefariously: about policies crafted to counteract Black Suffrage, and have now created a class of “unworthy” people, no different than the Black, Native American and female people who came before us.
My question for candidates is this: what is their message to me and my 7000 neighbors: Get involved with New Orleans, stay in the shadows, or simply leave?
Bruce Reilly is a law student at Tulane University. He is denied voting rights after moving to Louisiana, although he drafted the constitutional amendment that restored his rights in Rhode Island.