A new report by the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights finds that nearly one-in-four African Americans has lost the right to vote in Kentucky. The report makes clear that this shockingly high rate of disenfranchisement results from a racially biased criminal justice system and Kentucky’s archaic criminal disenfranchisement law.
Kentucky is one of the last two states [see pdf map] in the country (Virginia is the other) that denies the right to vote for life to anyone with a felony conviction, unless the current Governor restores the right through his clemency powers.
The Commission on Human Rights report covers a variety of subjects impacting African Americans in Kentucky, including graduation rates, employment by public agencies, socioeconomic status, unemployment rates, hate crimes, and interactions with the criminal justice system. Although the report acknowledges the progress that Kentucky has made in improving the status of African Americans as compared to a half century ago, it reveals that there is still a long way to go to eradicate racial bias.
Perhaps most troubling, the report reveals a racial bias deeply embedded in Kentucky’s criminal justice system. African Americans are three times more likely than whites to be arrested in Kentucky. Though African Americans make up just 7.7% of Kentucky’s population, they are nearly one-third of people who are incarcerated. The incarceration rate for African Americans in Kentucky is about five times that of whites. No matter how one views the numbers, Kentucky’s criminal justice system clearly has a disparate impact on African Americans.
The entrenched racial bias in Kentucky’s criminal justice system results in the mass disenfranchisement of African Americans. In 2004, Kentucky denied the right to vote for life to almost fifty thousand of its approximately two hundred thousand African American residents. Today, the disenfranchisement rate remains practically unchanged.
Because the current disenfranchisement law vests so much power in the Governor, the rate of disenfranchisement can vary widely depending on who is in office. A 2006 study by the League of Women Voters showed that the Governor approved rights restoration applications at half the rate of the one who preceded him. The number of applications for restoration nosedived primarily because the then Governor created several additional administrative hurdles for the restoration process, including requiring three character witnesses and an essay.
When Governor Beshear came into office, he took a positive first step by removing these burdensome requirements from the process. This is commendable, but only a first step. Kentucky’s General Assembly now has the opportunity to propose a constitutional amendment that would end the state's archaic and discriminatory scheme. However, the Senate version of the bill is sitting in Committee, where it has been for over a month. The Kentucky Senate should pass this bill and put the question on the ballot. Give Kentuckians who are eligible to vote the power and the opportunity to restore the vote to their fellow Kentuckians.
As the Kentucky Commission on Human Rights notes, there has been some progress in improving the status of African Americans in Kentucky. But the progress cannot hide that one-in-four African Americans in Kentucky cannot vote. It is time for Kentucky to modernize and simplify its voting rights restoration law.