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Kentucky legislators should reinstate voting rights for former felons

By ERIC MOUNT

Contributing Columnist

Kentucky leads the nation in general voter disenfranchisement. Could that change during the current legislative session? Maybe.

About 312,000 Kentuckians do not have the right to vote. That means that nearly one in 10 Kentuckians of voting age cannot vote. A nation-topping one in four African-American residents of voting age cannot vote.

In both cases, the reason is a felonies on potential voters’ records. Although they served their sentence, including time on probation or parole, they have not been able to get their voting rights restored.

Our legislature again has proposed bills (three in the Senate and one in House) that would enable voting restoration for non-violent felons, but House passage of such bills at least nine times in the past has been rejected by the Senate. Kentucky remains one of the last two holdouts.

Forty-eight states now have laws that automatically allow non-violent felons to vote after they have done their time. Florida just joined the group in November. Iowa is now the only outlier besides Kentucky, and its governor recently proposed a constitutional amendment that would make it No. 49 with passage by the legislature and approval by the electorate.

Why would all these states and the District of Columbia do such a thing?  For the sake of restorative justice, one hopes. People who have served their time have not been returned to full participation as citizens if they lack voice and vote. Being able to vote gives them incentive to rebuild their lives, and studies show that people whose vote is restored are half as likely to become repeat offenders. 

There is also a racial discrimination issue. The mass incarceration surrounding the War on Drugs disproportionately imprisoned black males. (See Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow.”)  Between 1980 and 2010, the share of voting-age Kentuckians with felony records rose nearly four-fold. Among black residents, it rose seven-fold despite a decline in the crime rate, and despite the fact that black people were not using drugs more than white people. They were nevertheless more likely to become convicted felons and lose their voting rights permanently.

Why would there be resistance to this restoration? Some worry about appearing to be soft on crime. Any felony (which is often a low-level drug offense or failure to pay alimony or child support) deserves a lifetime voting ban, they believe.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, for example, insists that voting is not a right but a privilege to be earned — that “those who break our laws should not dilute the vote of law-abiding citizens.” Letting the wrong people vote would risk their voting the wrong way, according to McConnell.

Sen. McConnell voices a related concern about a bill before the U.S. Congress — H.R. 1, the For the People Act of 2019. To make registration and voting easier and to eliminate barriers that have suppressed some people’s voting (especially minorities), this bill would make Election Day a national holiday and even allow registration on Election Day.

The senator calls the Election Day proposal a “political power grab” to gain votes for the opposing party. Again, the franchise would be expanded to the wrong people, it seems.

We return to Kentucky’s track record on restoration of voting rights of felons. There was the passage of a bill by the House nine years in row prior to 2017, only to die in the Senate each time.

In 2015, departing Gov. Steve Beshear issued an executive order that restored the vote to 140,000 non-violent former felons. But Gov. Bevin reversed it when he took office.

Three years ago a bill was passed to restore rights to former felons with low-level convictions at the governor’s discretion and 2,000 have had their rights restored. However, it is a complicated and costly process. The person’s conviction must first be expunged. You can get only one expungement in a lifetime, and some are convicted of more than one at the same time.

Then comes the process of application, screening, and hoping for favorable action by the governor. The process costs $500, one of the most expensive in the country, which limits access by poor people. In two years, 1,663 have had rights restored, and 171 have been denied. Last March, there was a backlog of 1,459 applications. 

As reported in these pages, the Fair Elections Center and the Kentucky Equal Justice Center have joined a lawsuit on behalf of four felons on the grounds that Kentucky’s arbitrary process violates the First Amendment rights of the plaintiffs. 

Against this background, our legislators will be looking at bills to restore voting rights during the current session.

Tuesday, Feb. 19, from 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., has been designated as Voting Rights Lobby Day by the citizen justice advocacy group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. At 9:30 a.m. in Room 171 of the Capitol Annex, the Kentucky Council of Churches, in partnership with KFTC, the Poor People’s Campaign and other justice advocacy groups, is holding another in its Prayer in Action series. The focus for the hour will be voting rights.

The session will include prayer, education about relevant pending bills, and articulation of the KCC policy in support of restoration of voting rights. Those in attendance may then choose to contact their legislators to express their support or opposition.

You don’t have to make the trip to get more information and contact your legislators. You can use the websites of the KCC (kycouncilofchurches.org) and the KFTC (kftc.org) to learn more. Legislators’ info can be found at legislature.ky.gov.

Eric Mount is the Nelson D. and Mary McDowell Rodes Professor Emeritus of Religion at Centre College.