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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.

Last Updated: December 12, 2019
Published: November 15, 2019

UPDATE: On Decem­ber 12, 2019, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear signed an exec­ut­ive order restor­ing voting rights to over 100,000 people with convic­tions in their past.

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.