Kentucky GOP stalls restoration of voting rights for ex-felons

Shortly before he left office this year, former Kentucky governor Steve Beshear restored voting rights for over 180,000 non-violent ex-felons by issuing a blanket pardon for former criminals who had completed their sentences.

A few weeks later, newly-inaugurated governor Matt Bevin reversed Beshear’s actions.

The back-and-forth over rights restoration had less to do with whether to restore voting rights for non-violent ex-felons, and more to do with how it should be done. Rights restoration legislation, which Bevin had previously endorsed, has been pending in Kentucky’s legislature for years. In reversing Beshear’s executive action once he took office, Bevin explained that while he supports automatic rights restoration in principle, he wanted to work with Republicans to pass a law, rather than relying on the governor to implement the policy on an ad-hoc basis.

There were a number of reasons to be skeptical of Bevin’s supposedly principled stance rooted in a conservative understanding of separation of powers. Most notably, his executive order reversing Beshear’s voting rights expansion came on the same day that he went around the legislature to remove the state’s requirement that county clerks’ names appear on marriage licenses — unilaterally granting Kim Davis an exemption from doing her job and issuing marriage licenses to same-sex couples. However, there now appears to be an even more basic flaw in Bevin’s stated goal of passing automatic rights restoration through Kentucky’s Republican-controlled Senate: The version of the legislation most likely to pass is designed to stall the process, not facilitate it.

From the Lexington Courier-Journal:

Kentucky Governor-elect Matt Bevin, via Wikimedia Commons

Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin, via Wikimedia Commons

A Senate committee on Wednesday approved a constitutional amendment that would give the General Assembly the power to restore voting rights to convicted felons without the need for a gubernatorial pardon.

Senate Bill 299 wouldn’t automatically restore voting rights like House Bill 70 would, but instead it would allow the legislature to do it by statute. It passed the Senate State and Local Government Committee on a 10-0 vote.

Under the Kentucky Constitution, only the governor has the authority to restore voting rights. Proponents have argued that once someone serves their sentence, they should have rights restored in an effort to assimilate them back into the community.

Voting rights advocates oppose the Senate bill because, as they note, it amounts to little more than a delay. The House bill already provides for automatic rights restoration, while the Senate version is little more than a toothless affirmation that the legislature has the authority to automatically restore rights — authority that no one has questioned in the prior years that House Democrats have pushed their rights restoration bill. What’s more, even if the Senate bill passed, the legislature would then have to pass another bill with the specific offenses that are covered for rights restoration, along with the specific length of the waiting period that Kentucky Republicans have said would need to be included in any rights restoration package.

Finally, voting rights advocates have pointed out that the Senate bill risks codifying the aforementioned waiting period into the state’s constitution, which would make it more difficult to change later if people decide that said waiting period is arbitrary and unnecessary — which it is.

Taken together, it’s hard to consider the Republican version of Kentucky’s rights restoration effort as anything other than a stalling tactic. From the Courier-Journal again:

State Rep. Darryl T. Owens, the primary sponsor of HB 70 and the chairman of the House’s Elections, Constitutional Amendments and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee, said he would consider the legislation if it clears the full Senate, but he wasn’t impressed.

“It gives the legislature authority to restore voting rights,” he said. “My bill actually restores them. Why not just do that?”

Great question.

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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One Response to “Kentucky GOP stalls restoration of voting rights for ex-felons”

  1. Hue-Man says:

    Definition of felon: “a person who has been convicted of a felony.” Isn’t ex-felon like “post-retirement”?

    Excluding sports professionals who routinely return to their sport after retirement (in their 30s), post-retirement means you meeting the Grim Reaper!

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