Merlene Davis: Let us decide on restoration of felons' right to vote

Herald-Leader columnistMarch 13, 2013 

By the start of the new session of the General Assembly on Jan. 7, 2014, Rep. Jesse Crenshaw will resubmit House Bill 70 for consideration yet again.

That's a pretty sure bet.

He has done it so many times that it's reminiscent of the movie Groundhog Day.

Session after legislative session, the bill to automatically restore the voting rights of non-violent ex-felons has won bipartisan approval in the House. And session after legislative session, no one has found the time or the will to consider it in the Senate committee to which it has been sent. With the time remaining in this session, this year doesn't appear to be any different.

"We'll just start all over," Crenshaw, D-Lexington, said.

It's not like the bill would bring an immediate turnaround in the law. The restoration of voter rights is a constitutional change, requiring voters to give it the thumbs up or down. So what the bill is asking is that the legislators, whom we voted for, give their approval to allow us to decide what is best for our state and neighbors.

Then again, maybe that is fear.

A League of Women Voters study released this year suggests that there are 243,000 disenfranchised voters in the state, a gain of 57,000 since 2006. The study ranked Kentucky third nationally in the rate of disenfranchisement and second with blacks.

And we are one of only four states that ban former felons for life unless they seek special dispensation.

Ex-felons must submit an application for a voting pardon, the rules for which are up to the discretion of the governor. Gov. Steve Beshear, for example, loosened restrictions that were put into effect by former Gov. Ernie Fletcher. As a result, the number of applicants has surged.

Beyond the League and the House legislators who passed the measure 75 to 25, the bill is favored by advocacy groups Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, the NAACP and the American Civil Liberties Union.

Plus, a Courier-Journal Bluegrass Poll released last month suggested 51 percent of registered Kentucky voters are in favor of automatic restoration, with only 38 percent opposing it.

"It is always nice to see the citizenry support this," Crenshaw said. "It is my belief that if we get past the Senate, if it gets on the ballot, it will pass."

So why won't the senators allow it to be voted on? Are they afraid we the citizens will do the right thing?

HB 70 was sent to the Senate State and Local Government Committee where it died without a murmur. Committee chairman Joe Bowen, a Republican from my hometown of Owensboro, and former chairman Damon Thayer, a Republican from Georgetown, who still sits on the committee, haven't seen fit to give it a chance.

Still, Crenshaw is not discouraged.

He mentioned the years it took before a bill to raise the drop-out age to 18 passed both houses. It finally did this year.

I liked what Cindy Heine, co-president of the state chapter of the League of Women Voters, said when the study was released.

"The League was created by women who struggled many years seeking the right to vote," she said in a statement. "We believe citizens who have made a mistake should have that right reinstated once they have completed their full sentence and/or parole."

That's empathy.

What has been displayed by the leadership of the Senate committee is politics.

Maybe if we start talking with our friends and neighbors about HB 70, we can remind those leaders that the Groundhog Day movie ended only after the main character changed and started helping people.

This state, this country and especially ex-felons would be so much better off if we elected more leaders who possess that quality.

Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: mdavis1@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog: Merlenedavis.bloginky.com.

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