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Voting Rights Restoration Efforts in Kentucky

A summary of current felony disenfranchisement policies and legislative advocacy in Kentucky.

Last Updated: August 5, 2020
Published: November 7, 2018

On Decem­ber 12, 2019, Governor Andy Beshear issued an exec­ut­ive order on his third day in office to end Kentuck­y’s perman­ent and blanket ban on voting for those with convic­tions in their past. Governor Beshear restored voting rights to most people with prior convic­tions who have completed their terms of incar­cer­a­tion, proba­tion, and parole – which is estim­ated to be more than 100,000 citizens.

Governor Beshear’s Order restored eligib­il­ity by oper­a­tion of law at the time it was signed. That means that indi­vidu­als who were made eligible pursu­ant to the Order need not take any further steps before they can register to vote.

Recent Rights Restor­a­tion Activ­ity in Kentucky

On Novem­ber 24, 2015, then-Governor Steve Beshear issued an exec­ut­ive order that restored voting rights to Kentucky citizens with past convic­tions that were clas­si­fied as non-viol­ent and who completed their sentences and met other criteria. The order also estab­lished a process by which citizens serving sentences would have their voting rights restored upon complet­ing their sentences, and would receive a certi­fic­ate of rights restor­a­tion and a voter regis­tra­tion applic­a­tion in the mail with their discharge papers.

But, in Decem­ber 2015, Governor Matt Bevin retrac­ted Governor Steve Beshear’s policy.

Governor Bevin issued an exec­ut­ive order that attacked the state’s most import­ant progress on voting rights restor­a­tion to date, and once again made Kentucky a national outlier for disen­fran­chising citizens with past crim­inal convic­tions.

Under Governor Bevin’s order, thou­sands of citizens living and work­ing in their communit­ies were barred from voting unless they apply to the governor and their rights were indi­vidu­ally restored. This meant that Kentucky was one of only two states at the time (includ­ing Iowa) that perman­ently took away the right to vote from citizens with past crim­inal convic­tions.

The Bren­nan Center offered the follow­ing state­ment in response to Gov. Bevin’s order:

“Gov. Bevin’s order sends Kentucky back­wards and again makes it one of only three states in the coun­try that perman­ently disen­fran­chise Amer­ic­ans for a mistake made in their past. Because he justi­fied his regress­ive action by saying rights restor­a­tion was the province of the legis­lature, it is incum­bent upon him to achieve seri­ous move­ment from those in the Senate who have blocked common sense voting rights restor­a­tion legis­la­tion for too many years.”

Bipar­tisan Support­ers of Rights Restor­a­tion in Kentucky

A diverse coali­tion of law enforce­ment profes­sion­als, reli­gious lead­ers, prom­in­ent politi­cians from both sides of the aisle, and civil rights groups supports restor­ing voting rights to Kentucki­ans with crim­inal convic­tions. These support­ers include U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, the Amer­ican Proba­tion and Parole Asso­ci­ation, the Cath­olic Confer­ence of Kentucky, Kentucki­ans for the Common­wealth, the ACLU of Kentucky, the Kentucky Coun­cil of Churches, and the Kentucky Confer­ence of the NAACP. Polling suggests the vast major­ity of Kentucki­ans support rights restor­a­tion. Read more about bipar­tisan support for rights restor­a­tion on the national level.

Past Legis­lat­ive & Exec­ut­ive Advocacy

The Bren­nan Center has worked with part­ners in Kentucky for more than a decade to change the state’s disen­fran­chise­ment policy. Those efforts include a number of recent devel­op­ments:

  • Prior to the issu­ance of the Decem­ber 2019 and Novem­ber 2015 exec­ut­ive orders, the Bren­nan Center worked along­side state-based allies to commu­nic­ate the need for action to Gov. Andy Beshear, Gov. Steve Beshear, and the Kentucky legis­lature. 
  • In Februr­ary 2015, the Kentucky House passed legis­la­tion that would restore voting rights to people complet­ing sentences for felony convic­tions, but it did not pass the Senate.
  • In 2014, both the Kentucky House and Senate passed similar rights restor­a­tion legis­la­tion. However, the legis­lature did not agree to a final version of the bill.
  • In 2013, Bren­nan Center Demo­cracy Program Deputy Director Myrna Pérez test­i­fied before the Kentucky Legis­lature’s Task Force on Elec­tions, Consti­tu­tional Amend­ments and Inter­gov­ern­mental Affairs in support of pre-filed rights restor­a­tion legis­la­tion that would put a consti­tu­tional amend­ment on the next elec­tion’s ballot.

Offi­cial Mater­i­als on Exec­ut­ive Order

Bren­nan Center Cover­age


Bren­nan Center Public­a­tions

  • Restor­ing the Right to Vote, Erika Wood (2009)
    • The Bren­nan Center’s policy proposal for restor­ing voting rights for citizens with past crim­inal convic­tions.
  • My First Vote (2009)
    • Testi­mo­ni­als of indi­vidu­als who regained their voting rights after being disen­fran­chised because of past crim­inal convic­tions.
  • De Facto Disen­fran­chise­ment, Erika Wood & Rachel Bloom (2008)
    • A report on how complex laws, poorly informed offi­cials, and misin­form­a­tion lead to the de facto disen­fran­chise­ment of citizens with past crim­inal convic­tions who are eligible to vote.
  • Racism & Felony Disen­fran­chise­ment: An Inter­twined History, Erin Kelley (2017)
    • A piece examin­ing the histor­ical roots of crim­inal disen­fran­chise­ment laws that today strip voting rights from millions of U.S. citizens.

For more inform­a­tion about the Bren­nan Center’s work on Restor­ing Voting Rights in Kentucky, please contact Derek Paul­hus, at paul­hus­d@bren­

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