On December 12, newly-elected Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear (D) signed an executive order to restore voting rights to 140,000 people with prior nonviolent felony convictions. Beshear issued the order two days after taking office, fulfilling a pledge from his gubernatorial campaign, which narrowly defeated then-incumbent Matt Bevin (R).
“This is significant if you believe that you shouldn’t lose the right to vote if you’ve gone to prison,” Richard Mitchell, a Steering Committee member for the Central Kentucky Council for Peace and Justice (CKCPJ) told Filter. “If you’ve done your time, you should be able to vote. When we do ‘get out the vote’ work in Lexington’s lower-income communities, we discover that many of them want to vote but cannot because of some past felony record. It deletes significant voter power from our communities.”
Beshear acknowledged that the executive order does not permanently ensure the rights to vote and hold public office for impacted people. A future governor could reverse his action, unless lawmakers and voters pass a constitutional amendment to codify the reform in law.
Beshear supports such a longer-term effort. For now, “I can tell you that as long as I serve, this order is going to be in effect,” he said. His executive order does not apply to people who were convicted of violent or sexual offenses, or to certain nonviolent offenses such as bribery or treason. Nor does it cover people who are currently serving prison sentences, on parole or on probation.
The people who are covered regain eligibility automatically without being charged any new fees. They can now register to vote like any other citizen. They can also request verification from the Department of Corrections if they need it. However, they are still liable to repay court-ordered restitutions or other damages.
Along with Iowa, Kentucky is one of only two states in the US to enforce a lifetime voting ban for people with felonies, persisting after prison, parole and probation are completed. The ban has prevented 300,000 people from voting in Kentucky, according to 2016 data from the Sentencing Project. That’s over 9 percent of Kentucky’s voting-age population. The ban has had a racially disproportionate impact, in barring over 25 percent of Kentucky’s black voting-age population from voting. Overall, Kentucky has the third-highest voter disenfranchisement rate in the US.
And even with the new executive order, people with felony convictions in Kentucky—as elsewhere—will continue to face barriers in getting hired, receiving a loan, renting or buying a home, or pursuing an education.
“The same people who lose their right to vote have enormous struggles getting a job,” Mitchell said. “It works against them pursuing a different path in life, and in fact increases the likelihood they will re-offend and return to jail if they don’t have many options.”
Filter has previously reported, for example, on the challenges facing people with prior cannabis convictions even in states that have legalized. The discrimination and loss of civil rights drug offenders experience for simple misdemeanor possession charges have made retroactive expungement, record sealing and re-sentencing a central demand of reformers at state and federal levels.
Progress has been seen elsewhere. Voters in Florida approved Amendment 4 in November 2018, which restored voting rights to over a million people with felony convictions. It previously enforced a lifetime voting ban. However, the administration of Governor Ron DeSantis (R) is fighting in federal court to require those individuals to pay court-ordered restitutions, fines and fees before regaining eligibility. Earlier this month, a US District Judge earlier this month accused DeSantis’s administration of trying to “run out the clock” by excluding this potential new voting bloc from the 2020 elections.
Meanwhile, groups like the ACLU of Kentucky are pushing for a constitutional amendment to guarantee voting rights to people with felony convictions. Such a proposal would need to be proposed and approved by 60 percent of both houses of the Kentucky General Assembly.
It would then be put on the ballot in the next election for voters to decide on. “We now hope we can act as a legislature to restore voting rights permanently to those who have paid their debt to society and deserve to be heard at the voting booth,” said House Democratic leaders Derrick Graham and Joni Jenkins.
Photo from Voting Rights Campaign of Kentucky via Facebook