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Voting Rights Restoration Efforts in Kentucky

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

Published: November 7, 2018

Following an executive order on December 22, 2015 by the state’s governor, Kentucky’s felony disenfranchisement law is once again one of the harshest in the nation. Its constitution permanently bars all individuals with past felony convictions from voting, unless the governor restores the right to vote.

Governor Bevin’s Executive Order and Kentucky’s Current Rights Restoration Process

On December 22, 2015, Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin issued an executive order that attacked the state’s most important progress on voting rights restoration in recent memory, and once again makes Kentucky a national outlier for disenfranchising citizens with past criminal convictions. One month earlier, then-Gov. Steve Beshear issued an order which restored voting rights to Kentucky citizens with past criminal convictions whose convictions were classified as non-violent and who completed their sentences and met other criteria. That order also established a process by which qualifying citizens’ voting rights were restored as soon as they completed their sentences. Gov. Bevin’s order replaces that process with Kentucky’s prior procedure.

Now, except for those whose rights were restored under former Gov. Beshear’s order or before, thousands of citizens living and working in their communities are barred from voting unless they apply to the governor and their rights are individually restored. This means that Kentucky is again one of only two states (including Iowa) that permanently take 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.”

Kentucky’s Previous Rights Restoration Executive Order

On November 24, 2015, then-Gov. Steve Beshear issued an executive order that restored voting rights for citizens who fully completed their sentences and were disenfranchised because of non-violent convictions. 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. Those who already completed their sentences were to contact the state and submit paperwork to verify their identity and eligibility. 

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. 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 nearly a decade to change the state’s disenfranchisement law. Those efforts include a number of recent developments:

  • Prior to the issuance of the November 2015 executive order, the Brennan Center worked alongside state-based allies to communicate the need for action to Gov. 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 State 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 Makeda Yohannes, at

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