Senate made mockery of voting rights amendment

February 23, 2014 

  • About the authors

    Tomas Lopez, left, is counsel for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. The Rev. Patrick Delahanty is the executive director of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky.

Imagine if two-thirds of people living in Lexington just disappeared. Their houses sat empty, their jobs unfilled and taxes unpaid. When it comes to our country's most basic democratic right — voting — that is what's happening today.

Nearly 200,000 Kentuckians living and working in our communities cannot vote because of antiquated laws excluding them from our democracy. When someone is convicted of a felony, they can never vote again unless the governor individually allows them to do so. It does not matter how long ago the crime was, how old the person was when he did it or how long he has been living productively among friends and neighbors.

This year, the legislature, and every citizen, had a chance to change that, but it looks as if the Kentucky Senate is squandering that opportunity.

The legislature is considering House Bill 70, which would allow voters to decide on a constitutional amendment that would automatically restore voting rights for people with criminal convictions who have fully completed their sentences.

The Senate's State and Local Government Committee held a hearing Wednesday and passed, instead of HB 70, a substitute so inadequate that it is not worth the House's time. Within hours, Senate leaders brought the bill to the floor and passed it. The measure now heads back to the House.

The substitute bill would dilute HB 70 in three key ways: First, by barring people with certain offenses from restoring their voting rights. Second, even more importantly, by also excluding people with multiple prior felonies from voting. And third, by barring people from getting their rights restored if they committed a misdemeanor within five years of completing their sentence.

The great majority of the disenfranchised would remain disenfranchised under the Senate's substitute. This is not progress. It's a naked ploy to scuttle a popular reform.

A majority of legislators has supported HB 70 for seven years. The Senate never gave the bill a hearing until last week. Over these seven years, lawmakers have heard from people who believe felony disenfranchisement reform is the right thing to do. There are a lot of them, and the state's leaders should heed what they say.

Law enforcement leaders have stressed that restoring the right to vote promotes public safety by helping people reintegrate into their communities, making them less likely to return to crime.

Faith leaders have pointed out that permanent bans like Kentucky's never allow people to move beyond their past acts. Some of those who cannot vote today have met with senators and explained how much it would mean to them to be able to finally cast a ballot. And U.S. Sen. Rand Paul testified in person that he thought Kentucky should move toward the mainstream — only two other states are as severe in restricting the rights of persons with criminal convictions. The senator is a critical advocate. We had hoped other state leaders would follow his example.

Kentucky was and will remain an outlier should this substitute bill win approval in the House. Last week, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder urged states to repeal their felony disenfranchisement laws. His remarks are important, but they also reflect where much of the nation is already going.

Last year, Delaware approved a constitutional amendment that undid much of its felony disenfranchisement law, and Virginia's governor took executive action to make it easier for people to get their rights back. We were seeing that progress in Kentucky, too — until last week.

What the Senate did serves no public purpose. Refusing people access to the ballot box does nothing more than continue to punish, rather than help build community. It doesn't reduce crime or make us safer. It simply keeps people who are working hard, trying to raise a family, paying taxes and contributing to their communities from having a say in their government.

Lawmakers should be ashamed to cut from the democratic process so many people who are part of Kentucky's social and economic life.

House members must reject the Senate bill and demand that the reasonable provisions of HB 70 be restored. In negotiating a compromise, conference committee members must strip away the amendments that continue to disenfranchise so many.

HB 70 as passed by the House is good public policy — it strengthens our communities and our democratic values. Its substitute is a cynical imitation.

Kentucky's voters, who will vote on this issue, and its would-be voters, whose rights are at stake, deserve better.

About the authors Tomas Lopez, left, is counsel for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law. The Rev. Patrick Delahanty is the executive director of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky.

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