Kentucky Governor Beshear restores voting rights for 180,000 non-violent ex-felons

Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear has signed an executive order today that automatically restores voting and officeholding rights for 180,000 ex-felons who have completed their sentences. Felons whose convictions were for violent crimes, sex offenses, bribery or treason were excluded.

Let me stop you before you make a “this would have been great to do before the election” joke. While the number of felons who will have their rights restored does exceed Governor-elect Matt Bevin’s margin of victory, it doesn’t exceed it by a whole lot. Given the fact that statewide turnout was barely over 30 percent, even if every ex-felon had voted for Jack Conway, nowhere near enough of them would have turned out.

Besides, that really isn’t the point behind restoring these people’s voting rights. As I wrote last week:

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.

Beshear had stoked speculation that he would issue such an executive order last week when he told Insider Louisville that, while he was still considering whether to issue the order:

Steve Beshear, via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

Steve Beshear, via Gage Skidmore / Flickr

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.

Kentucky is one of just four states that does not automatically restore voting rights for felons who have fully completed their sentences. And to be clear, it is still on that list. Beshear’s executive order didn’t change Kentucky’s law, it simply amounted to a blanket pardon for existing ex-felons who have completed their sentences. Current and new felons will still be without their voting rights, absent action from the legislature.

However, such action could be on the way. Kentucky Governor-elect Matt Bevin has previously indicated his support for automatic rights restoration, as well, so it is unlikely that he will undo Beshear’s actions. What’s more, legislation that would make rights restoration automatic has made progress in Kentucky’s legislature, and is currently being held up over non-meritorious reasons. As Insider Louisville reported last week:

Republican Governor-elect Matt Bevin — who will be sworn into office in three weeks — told IL during the campaign that he supports the automatic restoration of voting rights along the lines of HB 70. He also said he was confident that he could change the minds of Republicans in the state Senate on the issue — such as Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, who vowed to continually block the bill because a handful of voting rights activists jeered him in a committee meeting two years ago.

A slightly more serious reason for the bill being held up in the State Senate was Republicans’ insistence on a five-year waiting period, which Democrats have refused due to the sheer arbitrariness of such a waiting period. If someone has completed their sentence and satisfied all requirements for having their rights restores, why make them wait any longer?

At the end of the day, there isn’t any good reason for felons who have completed their sentences — who have “paid their debt to society” — to continue to be denied their rights. This is a welcome move from Governor Beshear, and here’s hoping that the state builds off of his rights expansion in the near future.

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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