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Analysis

Kentucky’s Incoming Governor Has a Mandate to Restore Voting Rights

Governor-elect Andy Beshear should take action on day one and make voting rights restoration automatic and immediate for people who served time for felonies.

kentucky voting
Washington Post/Getty

On Election Day, voters in Kentucky made a strong statement in support of expanding democracy and restoring voting rights to people with past felony convictions, building on a years-long trend around the country. Ending Kentucky’s policy of lifetime felony disfranchisement was a prominent part of Andy Beshear’s platform in the race to become governor. Prior polling suggested that the state’s voters overwhelmingly supported such a policy, and the election of Beshear, a candidate who ran on the issue, confirms it.

Beshear now has a mandate to make good on the policy that his father, former Gov. Steve Beshear, tried to put into place when he issued Executive Order 871 in 2015. At that time, Kentucky was one of only four states that permanently barred everyone convicted of a felony from voting.

With his order, the elder Beshear announced his intention to restore voting rights to people convicted of nonviolent offenses after they completed their sentences. The order came after years of advocacy by impacted people and advocates, including the Brennan Center, and was a remarkable step forward for access to democracy in Kentucky.

Unfortunately, Steve Beshear issued his executive order at the very end of his term, and his successor, Gov. Matt Bevin, rescinded the policy within days of taking office. Moreover, Beshear’s order required people to apply for restoration, which was not possible for most people before its quick rescission, so its effect was mostly symbolic.

When Bevin rescinded the order in December 2015, he said rights restoration was “an issue that must be addressed through the legislature and by the will of the people.” Bevin was flat wrong. The Kentucky Constitution unequivocally gives the governor the power to restore voting rights “by executive pardon.” What’s more, the people of Kentucky have spoken — they want to extend a second chance to their fellow citizens.

Now Andy Beshear can make rights restoration a priority and act quickly to ensure that his action has an immediate and lasting impact. The last four years have validated his father’s actions many times over and reaffirmed that voters across the country — and across the political spectrum — believe everyone is entitled to forgiveness and a second chance.

In the four years since Gov. Steve Beshear’s executive order was rescinded, the list of states with a practice of permanently disenfranchising everyone convicted of a felony has dwindled to just two: Kentucky and Iowa. Virginia and Florida have since revoked their membership from this ignominious club. At the time of Steve Beshear’s order, then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe, had already begun to move in the right direction. And since 2016, he and his successor, Gov. Ralph Northam, have granted clemency to restore voting rights to more than 200,000 people with felony convictions.

In 2018, almost two-thirds of Florida’s voters — a clear bipartisan majority — approved a constitutional amendment restoring voting rights to most Floridians with felony convictions. And now that Iowa’s Republican governor, Kim Reynolds, is pressing for a constitutional amendment that would restore voting rights, Kentucky’s status as an outlier has only grown more stark.

These developments make very clear that voters see real value in welcoming their neighbors to the table and giving them a voice in the political process. There is a growing consensus that for a criminal justice system to function effectively, it needs to provide citizens a real opportunity for healthy reintegration to their communities. That’s why the American Probation and Parole Association and the Association of Paroling Authorities International have both passed resolutions in favor of voting rights restoration.

In Kentucky, the policy enjoys support from a wide range of advocates, including the Catholic Conference of Kentucky, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, the League of Women Voters of Kentucky, the ACLU of Kentucky, the Kentucky Council of Churches, the Kentucky Conference of the NAACP, and Sen. Rand Paul.

The last few elections have also revealed a resounding call from voters for a more inclusive democracy. Pro-democracy ballot initiatives have passed by significant margins in a number of states. And lawmakers have responded by enacting expansive democracy reforms in state after state, including the recent passage of rights restoration legislation in Nevada, Colorado, and Louisiana. Earlier this year, the U.S. House of Representatives also acknowledged this groundswell of support for a more robust democracy by making its top priority the passage of H.R. 1, the For the People Act, which includes a rights restoration component called the Democracy Restoration Act.

Since all that is required to restore voting rights in Kentucky is an executive order, Andy Beshear can answer the call on his first day in office. Early action will send a strong message that Kentuckians with felony convictions are welcome members of the state’s civic community, and it will demonstrate the state’s commitment to an accessible democracy. The promise of his father’s order may have been delayed, but people who have completed their sentences need not be denied one more election. Now is the time for rights restoration in Kentucky. Beshear has committed to it. The voters have demanded it.