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Stanford man joins suit against Bevin for voter restoration rights

A Stanford man has joined a lawsuit brought against Gov. Matt Bevin challenging Kentucky’s “arbitrary process” in restoring felons’ voting rights. Roger Fox says it all started from a post he made on social media.  

“In November, during election, everyone gets on Facebook and posts with their little ‘I voted’ sticker. I made a funny post, saying hey, I have sticker-envy because I’m not allowed to vote,” Fox said.

Then a mutual friend reached out to him and put him in contact with the Kentucky Equal Justice Center (KEJC) in Lexington. KEJC has joined forces with the Fair Election Center (FEC) out of D.C. to represent Fox and three other men in the suit, filed in U.S District Court for the Eastern District of Kentucky Southern Division in London on Jan. 4.

Kentucky is one of only three remaining states denying former felons the right to vote until they petition for restoration. Former Gov. Steve Beshear had issued an order in 2015, restoring voting rights to Kentucky citizens with past criminal convictions who completed sentences and met criteria. One month later, when Gov. Bevin took office, he reversed that with his own executive order.

KEJC Senior Counsel Ben Carter said the right to vote is a fundamental right — probably the most fundamental one.

“Courts have been very clear. Fundamental rights cannot be subject to the arbitrary whims of government officials,” he said in a news release about the lawsuit. He said Kentucky’s present system now excludes 9 percent of eligible voters because of a felony convictions, even after they’ve paid their debt to society in full.

“That’s how I feel,” says Fox. He was released from prison in 2015 for drug-related charges.

“I’ve been without my voting rights since 2013. I had a 10-year sentence, which takes roughly seven years to complete, between being locked up and parole,” he said.

Fox will reach the end of his sentence in March. At that point, he would be eligible to have his voting rights restored, but he must first fill out a two-page application — and then hope for the best.

Kentucky’s process requires felons, after completing their full sentences, to submit the application to the Department of Corrections Division of Probation and Parole. The applications are screened and sent to Gov. Bevin, who has unrestricted power to deny or grant the request. There are no time limits for the DOC or the governor to follow in processing the applications and making decisions.

This has created a backlog of applicants awaiting a decision.

According to KEJC and FEC, there were 1,459 people awaiting the word on getting their voter rights restored as of March 2018. The organizations say that as of 2016, the Sentencing Project — a D.C.-based research and advocacy center — found that Kentucky had an estimated 242,987 former felons who are without their voter rights despite completing their full sentences. That represents about 7 percent of the voting population.

Fox said he’s “not comfortable” being left unsure whether he’ll ever be allowed to vote again.

“I feel like I paid my debts to society. I pay taxes; I take care of my kids. It’s a right I should get back.”

Fox currently works with former inmates. He runs a treatment program in Danville, funded by the Boyle and Mercer county fiscal courts, which provides newly released inmates with job training, drug counseling, mentoring and more.

The two organizations behind the lawsuit argue the state’s arbitrary rights restoration process violates the Constitution, preventing people who have served their sentences from fully re-entering society. The lawsuit asks the court to order the state to establish a non-arbitrary system for rights restorations “with specific and neutral criteria for all Kentuckians with felony convictions.”

“Kentucky is fighting an increasingly lonely battle to preserve a 19th-century system that forces American citizens to plead for restoration of their voting rights,” said Jon Sherman, senior counsel for FEC. “This lawsuit gives state officials and legislators an opportunity to reform a broken and unconstitutional system which excludes hundreds of thousands of people from our democracy, even if they have already done everything the criminal justice system required of them.”

Fox said he cares about national politics, but he cares much more about local politics.

“I care about who’s sitting on my kids’ board of education, the county judge-executive,” he said. “Those who affect me the most. Being able to participate in that is huge for me. I knew I had to be a part of this. I like trying to make change happen, and I think this is a positive one.”

SO YOU KNOW

The Fair Elections Center is a national, nonpartisan voting rights and election form organization which works to remove barriers to registration and voting for traditionally underrepresented constituents.

Kentucky Equal Justice Center is a nonprofit law firm and advocacy organization that works to promote equal justice for all residents of the Commonwealth for advocating for low income people and other vulnerable communities.