Saints Demario Davis, Ben Watson credited with getting Louisiana voting-restoration law passed

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Thousands of Louisianans are getting their right to vote returned to them, and New Orleans Saints players Demario Davis and Ben Watson are getting credit for helping push the years-long effort over the finish line.

Davis, Watson weighed in on HB 265

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Davis, a seventh-year linebacker, and Watson, a tight end in his 15th season, are active members of the Players Coalition. They stepped up to add their considerable voices to the fight for passage of House Bill 265 earlier this year, after the Coalition told them about it.

Via a feature by NFL Media’s Jim Trotter, within 24 hours of learning about the proposed law, Davis and Watson wrote an op-ed in support of the bill. It was published in The Advocate newspaper on May 15, and two days later the bill passed in the Louisiana legislature.

New Orleans Saints LB Demario Davis and teammate Ben Watson helped get Louisiana HB 265, which restores voting rights for ex-felons, passed earlier this year. (AP)
New Orleans Saints LB Demario Davis and teammate Ben Watson helped get Louisiana HB 265, which restores voting rights for ex-felons, passed earlier this year. (AP)

Governor John Bel Edwards signed it into law on May 31 in front of dozens of people, many of whom had spent years working to make HB 265 a reality.

“Their willingness to engage, I know it had an impact,” Norris Henderson told Trotter. Henderson is the founder of Voice of the Experienced (VOTE), a Louisiana organization that fights for voting rights for people who have 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.”

Over 2,000 benefit now, maybe thousands more in future

In Louisiana currently, people who have been convicted of felonies can regain the right to vote once they’ve completed probation or parole. For some, that meant they’d never get the right again, no matter how long they lived.

HB 265 changes that, and will restore voting rights to those who have been out of prison for five years but remain on probation or parole. Once it goes into effect on March 1, 2,200 people will have their right restored.

Kenneth Johnston is one of them.

The Vietnam veteran spent 22 years in prison on a manslaughter conviction, and has been on probation since 1993 and works as a paralegal. The day before his 70th birthday, Johnston will have his ability to take part in the most basic act of democracy returned to him.

He’s never voted before, having been drafted into the war before he got the chance. During his enlistment, he got involved with drugs, and that led to the situation that saw him kill another man. Johnston claimed it was self defense, but the court didn’t agree. While he was imprisoned, Johnston took an interest in legal issues and focused on those that impacted the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated.

“It’s going to be a wonderful birthday present: my right to vote,” Johnston said. “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.”

‘When you look deep, you see that the system is broken’

Watson and Davis said once they learned about HB 265, it was an easy choice to help.

“As someone who believes in justice and in forgiveness, and in the idea that when you pay your debt to society you should be grafted back into society and receive your full rights back, this was an atrocity to me,” Watson said.

Added Davis, “I just think you can’t help but be moved by it. 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.”

There are currently 70,000 ex-felons on probation or parole in Louisiana, which until recently was the prison capital of the world, incarcerating more residents per capita than any state in the union (Oklahoma has now taken that terrible title).

VOTE has a lawsuit pending before the state Supreme Court that could lead to thousands more individuals getting voting rights restored.

“It affected me because I believe everyone has a right to vote. I think the right to vote is something that was fought for in this country for all demographics,” Watson said. “It’s something that allows us – no matter the color of our skin, no matter our economic background — to have a voice.”

In June, Davis joined Washington’s Josh Norman for an early-morning shopping spree at a Texas Walmart, filling dozens of backpacks with necessities for children at a detention center near the Mexico border.

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