Next month’s Kentucky Derby isn’t the only upcoming speed event to watch in the Bluegrass State. With less than two weeks left in the state legislative session, a bill to reform Kentucky’s restrictive felony disenfranchisement laws is in a race against the clock.
Last night, House Bill 70 passed out of the House in the eleventh hour with a triumphant 80–14 margin. The bill proposes a ballot referendum to amend the state constitution to automatically restore voting rights to people upon completion of sentence. Thankfully, the final version of the bill bucked almost all of its opponents’ attempts to saddle it with regressive amendments that would exempt certain classes of offenders and make voting rights contingent on paid restitution. But the bill languished for so long in the House it will need to sprint through the Senate in under two weeks if there is any shot of this question appearing on the ballot this November.
Kentucky shares with Virginia the woeful distinction of having the most restrictive disenfranchisement laws in the country. Kentuckians with felony convictions lose their voting rights for life and can only regain their rights by receiving clemency from the governor. According to a 2006 report by the League of Women Voters 90% of Kentucky’s disenfranchised population is not in prison and nearly 70% have completed their entire sentence. Kentucky also has the highest African-American disenfranchisement rate in the country—nearly one in every four African Americans in the state is denied the right to vote.
After just a few months in office, Governor Steve Beshear has already made important strides by eliminating some of the clemency requirements instituted by his predecessor. Since H.B. 70 would make voting rights restoration automatic, rather than dependent on the Governor’s approval on a case by case basis, the bill is a much-needed next step. The bill has already received deserved endorsements from The Courier-Journal editorial board and from American Probation and Parole Association executive director, Carl Wicklund.
Next November could be a historic opportunity for Kentucky’s democracy if voters are able to go to the polls to ease the state’s voting rights restoration process. The Senate should do all it can to ensure that the bill glides across the finish line in time.