Herald-Leader Editorials

GOP Senate makes farce of voting rights amendment

February 21, 2014 

In the annals of cynical politics, Kentucky's Republican Senate has reached new heights, or depths.

It has thumbed its collective nose at 180,000 Kentuckians who have served their time for felony convictions but still aren't allowed to vote, and the thousands of people who have worked for years to restore their voting rights — and told them they should be thankful.

The House should refuse this farcical rewrite.

The Senate has a long history of rejecting felon voting rights but the twist this year is the upper chamber manipulated the process so it could appear to be expanding rights without actually doing so.

This is how it worked: The House overwhelmingly passed House Bill 70, a plan long championed by Rep. Jesse Crenshaw, D-Lexington, to amend the state Constitution to automatically restore voting rights to felons who have served their time.

Kentucky is one of very few states that still restrict voting privileges for this group of people. The only way they can vote here is to get a special dispensation from the sitting governor.

Under Crenshaw's bill, voting rights would be restored automatically — except for those convicted of intentional homicide, sodomy, rape and sex offenses involving children —- after sentences are served. Simple and fair.

The Senate version, pushed by Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, is neither simple nor fair nor a real improvement. It maintains the status quo, which extends punishment beyond the period set in a court of law, preventing people who have rejoined society from participating fully. The Senate changes include:

■ A five-year wait before voting rights are restored automatically after the sentence is served for everyone except those favored few who get dispensation from whatever governor is in office.

■ No automatic restoration for people who have been convicted of two or more felonies arising from separate crimes.

■ No automatic restoration for those who commit misdemeanors during the five-year waiting period.

■ A wild card allowing the General Assembly to designate "high misdemeanors" that also would serve to eliminate voting rights.

There are a lot of problems with this. The most basic is that it continues to bar tens of thousands of Kentuckians — now one in 17 of voting age adults and one in five black males — from one of the most basic rights of citizenship.

Procedurally and politically, once a constitutional amendment is voted up or down it will be very difficult to return to this issue.

Finally, why bother? The Senate substitute's net effect would not be to affirm that people who have paid their debts to society have earned the right to be full citizens, but to muddy and confuse their status.

The only answer to that question is profoundly cynical: Led by presidential hopeful U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, Republicans are trying to burnish their image with minorities by appearing to support voting rights when, in reality, they don't.

The only hope for this important measure is that, rejected by the House, it goes to a conference committee that strips out the offensive Senate changes. If such a clean bill passed both houses, then, at long last, voters would have a chance to extend full citizenship to almost a fifth of their fellow Kentuckians.

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