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Kentucky Governor Creates New Process to Help Restore Voting Rights to 170,000 Citizens

In an incredible breakthrough for the movement to end criminal disenfranchisement laws, Kentucky’s governor issued an executive order that will help thousands of citizens regain their right to vote.

November 24, 2015

Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear issued an exec­ut­ive order today that will make it possible for more than 170,000 Kentucky citizens with past crim­inal convic­tions to get back their right to vote — an estim­ated 140,000 are imme­di­ately eligible to have their rights restored and another 30,000 will be over time. The announce­ment is an incred­ible break­through in the move­ment to end crim­inal disen­fran­chise­ment policies nation­wide.

Kentucky was one of only three states — along with Flor­ida and Iowa — to perman­ently bar citizens with past convic­tions from voting. But its consti­tu­tion does grant the governor broad author­ity to restore voting rights. Today’s action moves the state closer to the main­stream than any Kentucky governor has before.

Beshear’s order makes rights restor­a­tion avail­able for citizens who fully complete their sentences and were disen­fran­chised because of non-viol­ent convic­tions. Citizens currently serving sentences will get a certi­fic­ate of rights restor­a­tion and a voter regis­tra­tion applic­a­tion in the mail when they complete their sentence and get their discharge papers. Those who already have completed sentences will be able to contact the state to initi­ate that same process. Before today, all citizens with felony convic­tions had no hope for rights restor­a­tion unless they could person­ally persuade the governor to restore rights to them indi­vidu­ally. And under a previ­ous governor, Kentucky citizens once had to submit an essay with three char­ac­ter refer­ences when apply­ing to receive their right to vote back. 

The figures used to assess the order’s impact were estim­ated using data from several sources, includ­ing the 2010 U.S. Census, the Senten­cing Project’s estim­ates of disen­fran­chised popu­la­tions, and federal Bureau of Justice Stat­ist­ics data of the propor­tion of indi­vidu­als on parole and proba­tion with felony convic­tions clas­si­fied as non-viol­ent or other­wise.

A broad coali­tion — which has worked for years to end life­time disen­fran­chise­ment in Kentucky — praised the governor’s actions as a break­through. That effort has included the Bren­nan Center for Justice and other support­ers, includ­ing Kentucki­ans for the Common­wealth, the Cath­olic Confer­ence of Kentucky, the ACLU of Kentucky, the Kentucky Coun­cil of Churches, and the Kentucky State Confer­ence of the NAACP. In 2014, both houses of the state legis­lature passed legis­la­tion that would allow the public to vote on ending life­time disen­fran­chise­ment in Kentuck­y’s consti­tu­tion, but they could not agree on a final bill. The legis­lature has considered similar meas­ures for the past decade.

“Today’s order will offer a second chance to thou­sands and thou­sands of Kentucky citizens, some of whom have waited decades for the chance to get their right to vote back,” said Myrna Pérez, director of the Voting Rights & Elec­tions Project at the Bren­nan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. “Amer­ic­ans from all walks of life know that our crim­inal justice system is broken. Governor Beshear’s lead­er­ship is a move in the right direc­tion.”

“We’re seeing grow­ing national momentum for rights restor­a­tion, and Kentucky is the latest place to join in on that trend,” said Bren­nan Center Coun­sel Tomas Lopez. “Restor­ing the right to vote will improve Kentuck­y’s demo­cracy, strengthen its communit­ies, and increase public safety. We hope the state will build on today’s reforms and make the right to vote access­ible to all Kentucky citizens living and work­ing in their communit­ies.” 

Kentuck­y’s policy change builds on recent bipar­tisan support for rights restor­a­tion around the coun­try. Last year, U.S. Attor­ney General Eric Holder called on states to restore voting rights. Support­ers from across the polit­ical spec­trum have intro­duced bills in Congress, includ­ing the Civil Rights Voting Restor­a­tion Act of 2015 from U.S. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and the Demo­cracy Restor­a­tion Act from U.S. Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.). 

Over the past two decades, more than 20 states have improved their crim­inal disen­fran­chise­ment laws to allow more people with past convic­tions to vote, to vote sooner, or to access that right more easily. Like similar laws else­where in the United States, Kentuck­y’s policy dispro­por­tion­ately impacts racial minor­it­ies. It is estim­ated that 1 in 5 African Amer­ic­ans in Kentucky are disen­fran­chised, compared to 1 in 13 nation­ally. After today’s action, only Flor­ida and Iowa perman­ently disen­fran­chise all citizens with felony convic­tions. 

Indi­vidu­als who have already completed their sentences and believe they may be eligible for voting rights restor­a­tion under the new policy should visit the Bren­nan Center’s Kentucky inform­a­tion page, which will be updated with a link to the state govern­ment’s rights restor­a­tion website. The state website will include details on eligib­il­ity and how to initi­ate the rights restor­a­tion process.