A new poll finds that almost two-thirds of Kentuckians are in favor of re-enfranchising people with past felony convictions who have completed their sentences.
But for those who have been close to the issue, the result comes as no surprise: For years, there’s been compelling evidence that bipartisan majorities in the Bluegrass State support rights restoration.
Kentucky is now one of two remaining states, along with Iowa, that permanently disenfranchise returning citizens — a relic of Jim-Crow-era efforts to restrict the right to vote. In November, Florida voters passed, by a wide margin, a constitutional amendment that restored voting rights to as many as 1.4 million residents with past convictions.
A long fight for voting rights restoration in Kentucky
More than 312,000 Kentucky citizens — over 9 percent of the state’s population, and over one in four of the state’s African-Americans — are ineligible to vote because of a felony conviction.
There’s strong support across the political spectrum for ending the ban. The Kentucky House of Representatives has voted in favor of ending the ban 10 times in under 10 years with bipartisan support. Most recently, the House voted in favor of voting rights restoration bills in 2014 and 2015 with 82–12 and 86–12 majorities, respectively. Again, the legislation earned the approval of the majority of House Republicans, with then-House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover calling it “a matter of fairness.”
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) went out of his way to back the effort, telling lawmakers in testimony in 2014: “When you look at who is being deprived of voting, they are disproportionately people of color.”
An ideologically diverse coalition of groups — including the Catholic Conference of Kentucky, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, the ACLU of Kentucky, and the Kentucky Conference of the NAACP — also supported rights restoration.
But the effort fell short in the state Senate. In 2014, the Senate passed a weakened version of the House bill, after which the two chambers were unable to agree to a final version. And in February 2015, the House passed legislation that failed to pass in the Senate.
Still, it appeared that state leaders might have found a way. In November 2015, then-Gov. Steve Beshear, issued an executive order that restored voting rights for certain citizens who completed their sentences. Beshear’s successor, Matt Bevin, had campaigned as a supporter of rights restoration. But after taking office in January 2016, Bevin reversed Beshear’s order with an executive order of his own.
The Brennan Center has long advocated for voting rights restoration in Kentucky.
“Kentuckians should insist that their politicians get down to work and move voting rights restoration this year,” said Myrna Pérez, director of Brennan Center’s Voting Rights and Elections project. “It is long overdue. It will give returning citizens a second chance.”
Florida voters got a chance last year to make their voices heard on the issue of rights restoration, and came out loudly in favor. Now, returning citizens in Florida have started registering to vote. Will Kentucky follow suit? Kentuckians are ready — and have been for a while.
(Image: Brennan Center)