NEW ORLEANS -- Deep creases frame the corner of his eyes when he smiles, and his walk sometimes resembles a waddle more than a purposeful stride. But beyond that, it's hard to tell that Kenneth Johnston is five months shy of his 70th birthday. The Bayou native, who speaks with a nasal drawl that reflects his Southern roots, has a caffeinated spirt. He loves to laugh, and the room seems to shake when he breaks into one of his deep chortles.
He will tell you he has witnessed a lot in his life -- he did a tour in Vietnam and later spent 22 years in prison on a manslaughter conviction -- but one thing his brown eyes have never seen is the interior of a voting booth. However, thanks to last summer's passage of a Louisiana bill that allows ex-felons on supervision to regain their voter rights five years after being released from prison, Johnston will officially be eligible to hit the ballot box starting March 1, when the new law takes effect.
"It's the day before my birthday, so I think about it a lot," says Johnston, a paralegal who has been on parole since 1993. "It's going to be a wonderful birthday present: my right to vote. I've had so many birthdays, but this one is special. It's going to be a magnificent day because it's not like I won my right to vote; we won our right to vote. It's going to be a wonderful feeling because we're trying to make a difference."
Previously, ex-felons were prohibited from voting in Louisiana while on probation or parole. But passage of HB 265 changed that, restoring rights that had been stripped away in the 1970s. New Orleans Saints players Benjamin Watson and Demario Davis helped push the bill across the finish line after it had stalled in committee for a handful of years. Neither was aware of the issue before joining the Saints this year, but both felt compelled to do something when the Players Coalition brought it to their attention. Within 24 hours, they penned an op-ed supporting the bill. They also wrote a letter to legislators and spoke out on the radio.
"As someone who believes in justice, and in forgiveness, and in the idea that when you pay your debt you should be grafted back into society and receive your full rights back -- this was an atrocity to me," Watson says.
"I just think you can't help but be moved by it," Davis adds. "People who don't know about these issues should look deeper and not just take what they read in a headline or just be so quick to say somebody is a criminal so just be done with them. These are human beings that are being affected. When you look deep and get the depth of the story, you see that the system is broken."
That belief led the players to take action. They wrote the op-ed that was published in The Advocate on May 15. Two days later, the bill passed.
"Their willingness to engage, I know it had an impact," says Norris Henderson, founder of Voice of the Experienced (VOTE), a Louisiana grassroots organization that fights for voter rights of people who've been incarcerated. "It just seemed to be the thing that pushed the snowball down the hill. We knew the value that the Saints organization has in this state, and we thought if we could get a Saints player to write a letter on our behalf it could seal the deal."
Henderson, who turns 65 in November, was sentenced to life in prison as a 19-year-old for second-degree murder. While claiming his innocence, Henderson spent 27 years, 10 months and 18 days incarcerated before his case was overturned for prosecutorial suppression of evidence. Once out, he made voter reform his life's work, continuing the work he began in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, where as an inmate he helped found the Angola Special Civics Project, which investigated jail-based voter registration.
The Project was considered a political arm for prisoners to make change beyond their walls. Members came up with a voter-rights campaign for ex-felons that focused on education/organizing, legislation and litigation. Passage of HB 265 is a manifestation of those efforts, and its significance cannot be overstated considering there are more than 70,000 ex-felons on probation or parole in Louisiana. The Louisiana Department Of Corrections estimates that 2,200 people will be affected when the new law takes effect in March, with possibly tens of thousands more seeing their rights restored if VOTE wins a lawsuit pending before the state Supreme Court seeking broader voter rights for ex-felons.
"The word ineffable -- 'too great to describe in words' -- speaks to the impact this is going to have in our communities across this state," Henderson says. "For one, it gives us an opportunity to shift the narrative. When you hear folks talk about how they want to be tough on crime, it's a different audience listening now. This audience can engage now. It's not just an audience that [can be viewed as]: Here's a marginalized population, so I can say what I want to say or do what I want to do without any consequences or repercussions. A lot of the folks who understand the wants, needs and desires of folks who have been formerly incarcerated -- they can change policy now. We're in a position where we can start electing people who not just look like us, but think like us, who understand the impact that these policies have on our lives and on our children's lives."
No one is more eager to cast a ballot than Johnston. He wanted to register as a 20-year-old part-time student in 1969, but received draft papers and was sent to fight in the Vietnam War. During his enlistment, he got involved with drugs, and that contributed to him getting into a bad situation after returning. He says he was protecting himself when he killed a man, but the courts saw differently and he wound up spending 22 years in prison. While incarcerated, he took an interest in the legal system and focused on laws that impacted people serving time, including those related to voter rights.
"You see certain laws being passed that you feel strongly against, or you see people being elected that you feel strongly against, and the fact that you pay taxes every day but you can't vote -- it's a real, real negative feeling," he says. "I have a cap that shows I'm a Vietnam veteran. It always happens that people walk up to me and say, 'Thanks for serving your country. Thanks for serving your country,' and the first thing I would think of is, Yeah, I served my country, but I can't vote for something or against something. I feel deprived of a right that everyone is sharing."
There is a certain irony to Johnston and others fighting so vigorously to vote when so many Americans willfully choose not to vote. In fact, the U.S. Elections Project reported only 58 percent of eligible voters participated in the 2016 Presidential election, roughly matching the number from the 2012 election. Watson and Davis are among those working to give a voice to those the legal system has kept quiet for decades.
"I want to be able to serve people, and I want to be able to help people who can't help themselves, people who are being oppressed," Davis says. "It's a situation where either you're being oppressed or you're the oppressor. If you're standing on the sidelines not doing anything, you're not helping -- or you're actually hurting (the cause), because we need everybody. I always say it's like the bully in the room: If the bully is doing something and you're just standing there not doing anything, then you might as well be the bully. I just think [standing up is] part of what it means to be a human being -- having compassion, having empathy and being able to put yourself in someone else's shoes."
As significant as the passage of HB 265 was, those involved will tell you it's one step in a long journey. The fight against systemic oppression and discrimination continued Oct. 10, when Watson was among a group that visited the White House to discuss criminal justice reform with presidential adviser Jared Kushner. Specifically, their focus was on ways to help women transition from prison to society. Watson and Davis are quick to say they are not experts in this area, but they believe their voice and platform can help organizers get their message out and make real change in local communities.
"The proof is that the voters rights bill passed," says Syrita Steib-Martin, founder and co-executive director of Operation Restoration, who visited the White House with Watson. "That was legislation that had been up to be voted on for maybe five years and it never passed before. The involvement of Ben and Demario was a reason it got across the finish line."
"It affected me because I believe everyone has a right to vote," Watson says. "I think the right to vote is something that was fought for in this country for all demographics. It's something that allows us -- no matter the color of our skin, no matter our economic background -- to have a voice. I think the right to vote is what makes America America. It's what makes this country one where people, no matter if you were born into a family of wealth or if you were born into a family of poverty, you all have that one vote. And it's important that we believe that vote matters and that vote counts."