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Analysis

New Poll Is Just the Latest Evidence Kentuckians Support Voting Rights Restoration

This is a good time for the law to catch up with the voters on the issue.

January 25, 2019

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)