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Lawsuit would move Kentucky closer to MLK’s mountaintop

EDITORIAL

The Advocate-Messenger

Another Martin Luther King Jr. Day has come and gone, and King’s dream is still mostly just a dream. But a recent lawsuit filed against Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin could help us take another small step forward.

The lawsuit seeks to force Kentucky to create a standardized process by which felons could regain their voting rights. The Bluegrass State is one of only three left in the nation that removes felons’ right to vote permanently, unless they can successfully petition to have the right reinstated.

The only way a Kentuckian can regain his or her right to vote is if the governor decides to grant a restoration of civil rights. There are no rules for what qualifies someone to vote again — right now, it’s entirely the governor’s prerogative.

Felon disenfranchisement is a practice rooted in racism. It grew out of white backlash to the Civil Rights Movement that King helped lead and guide.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 was a watershed moment for U.S. culture. It stands as a landmark of the time when explicit discrimination against people because of their skin color became socially unacceptable. But it hardly marks the end of discrimination.

Those unwilling to move with the CRA toward King’s mountaintop instead dragged society down a different path of implicit racism — one that would negate many of the gains of the Civil Rights era.

Felon disenfranchisement was one of the main tools used in this effort. By redefining crimes more often committed by blacks as felonies and then removing felons’ right to vote, racist leaders successfully limited the black vote.

It’s not only black people who lose their right to vote, however. Today, poor people of all races are most likely to get stuck with a felony charge, whether deserved or not, and then lose the right to choose their city commissioners, their county magistrates, their sheriff, their local prosecutors or their judges.

There is no benefit to be had by preventing former felons from voting. It only serves to shame them and prevent them from feeling like fully restored members of their communities. Felon disenfranchisement blocks people who need to take on responsibilities from participating in one of the most important responsibilities we as U.S. citizens have.

The lawsuit filed against Bevin doesn’t try to eliminate felon disenfranchisement. That would be a good thing to accomplish, but the suit pursues a smaller step first: It wants Kentucky to create standards that former felons could meet in order to earn their voting rights back, rather than having their civil rights left up to the whims of one person.

It’s not enough. We still have a long way to go. But it would be a step in the right direction, a step toward the mountaintop.