Kentucky Governor Beshear hints at executive action on voting rights for non-violent felons

Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear only has a few more months left in office before governor-elect Matt Bevin takes over, and he may have a few good moves left in him before he goes. From Insider Louisville:

Steve Beshear, via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Steve Beshear, via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

For over a decade, activists in Kentucky have pushed for a constitutional amendment that would automatically restore the voting rights of over 100,000 nonviolent felons who have completed their sentences, as the state is one of the few remaining to not do so. While the popular legislation has been continually blocked in the state Senate, outgoing Gov. Steve Beshear hinted in an interview Tuesday that he is considering taking executive action in the next week to address the issue.

Asked by Insider Louisville if he is considering a blanket pardon for Kentucky’s former nonviolent felons — as groups such as Kentuckians for the Commonwealth are hoping for — Beshear said he would make an announcement soon on the restoration of rights process, but he was not ready to reveal the specifics.

Kentucky’s House of Representatives has passed legislation that would have amended the constitution to allow for automatic rights restoration for non-violent felons on numerous occasions, but that legislation has been stalled in the State Senate. The Sentencing Project estimates that over 243,000 Kentuckians have had their right to vote taken away due to a felony conviction, and 180,000 of them have completed their sentence. A majority of those 180,000 were convicted for non-violent offenses.

In commenting on the proposed policy, Beshear certainly gave the impression that he would move to expand voting rights. As he said yesterday:

A lot of states have made it automatic, and we ought to make it automatic, honestly…When you’ve served your time out and you’ve paid your restitution and all that, and you’re trying to become a productive member of society again, part of your integration back into society is the right to vote. It’s just a basic right that you ought to have, assuming you’ve paid your debt.

It’s also worth noting that Governor-elect Matt Bevin has spoken in favor of automatic rights restoration, as well, suggesting that it wouldn’t even be all that controversial from a political standpoint if Beshear were to act unilaterally.

Nationally, the Sentencing Project estimates that 5.85 million citizens were disenfranchised due to felony convictions as of 2012. 2.2 million of them are black. Put another way, African-Americans represent 38% of disenfranchised felons while accounting for just 13% of the American population. And it’s not as if there’s any evidence that felon disenfranchisement serves any law enforcement purpose. If anything, it alienates felons from society.

While it would require legislation in order to change Kentucky’s overarching policy toward restoration of rights for felons, Beshear would be within his authority as governor to pardon people who have completed their sentences, thereby restoring their right to vote. Future felons would still be disenfranchised, but over 100,000 people would be put back on the voter rolls after having “paid their debt to society,” so to speak.

Felon disenfranchisement remains one of the greatest restrictions on ballot access in the United States, although restoration of rights has become more politically viable in recent years. In Virginia, Governor Terry McAuliffe recently removed the requirement that ex-felons pay all outstanding court fees before being allowed to vote again — a major impediment to many ex-felons who were seeking to have their voting rights restored.

Rights restoration is a tough issue politically because the people who stand to benefit from it are, by definition, not allowed to vote in favor of politicians who would enact it. So for a very long time, the continued disenfranchisement of felons was a no-lose issue for politicians who wanted to brush up on their “tough on crime” credentials, and rights restoration was a no-win proposition for politicians who would otherwise be favorably disposed toward expanding ballot access. But now that voting rights are becoming an increasingly partisan issue, and the drastic racial and economic disparities in ballot access are being made more plain, voting rights advocates are gaining momentum in the push for rights restoration in a number of states. President Obama, for his part, has come out in favor of rights restoration.

So fingers crossed that Beshear waves his executive wand and does the right thing here. There’s no good reason for felons who have completed their sentence to still be barred from the electoral process. Given the steady reddening of the state, executive actions such as this one may be the only way for them to get their rights back for a long time.

Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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2 Responses to “Kentucky Governor Beshear hints at executive action on voting rights for non-violent felons”

  1. Dave says:

    After folks have served their debt to society, they should absolutely
    get their right to vote back. Some of these people committed crimes so
    minor that they didn’t serve a day in jail and yet we strip them of
    their right to be a part of their community for the rest of their lives?
    That’s just not right. I believe in Democracy and redemption.
    Restoring voting rights is the right thing to do and that’s just plain
    how things work in Democracies. Kentucky has been out of step with the
    rest of the world on this for far, far too long and I applaud Beshear
    for considering this move that would help hundreds of thousands.

  2. Nicholas A Kocal says:

    I bet if the felons promised to only vote for republicans their right to vote would be restored in a minute, that is, it would be restored for the white felons.

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