Changes to voting bill would leave more than half of Kentucky felons without the right to vote

jcheves@herald-leader.comFebruary 25, 2014 

Damon Thayer

FRANKFORT — More than half of the 180,000 Kentuckians barred from voting because of a felony conviction would remain permanently disenfranchised under changes the Kentucky Senate made last week to a voting rights bill, according to an analysis released Tuesday by the League of Women Voters of Kentucky.

In its original form, House Bill 70 would put a constitutional amendment on November's ballot asking voters if felons should have their voting rights automatically restored after they complete their sentences. Felons convicted of intentional murder and certain sex offenses would be excluded.

Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, last week changed the bill to make it more restrictive. The Senate version, which cleared that chamber on a 34-to-4 vote, would require felons to wait five years with no misdemeanor or felony convictions before they could register to vote. The Senate version also would exclude felons with multiple prior offenses.

The Senate's version would block an estimated 55 percent of Kentucky's 180,000 felons from voting again, largely because they have multiple felonies on their record, according to the League of Women Voters analysis.

It also would impose an undue burden on county clerks to verify the details of felons' criminal histories and sentences when the felons walked in to register to vote, the League said.

The nonpartisan group wants the General Assembly to pass the original version of House Bill 70 without the Senate's changes, said League co-president Cindy Heine.

"These are people who paid their debt to society," Heine said. "We have to remember that citizens are citizens. If they have made a mistake and served their sentence, then one of the things that helps bring them back into society as good citizens is allowing them to vote."

The Kentucky County Clerks Association has not taken a position on HB 70, its officials said. However, the League is correct that county clerks cannot independently verify a voter applicant's criminal record over the last five years or whether there was one or multiple offenses involved, the officials said.

"There is no way for us to find out information about criminal histories without going to the circuit court clerk's office at the courthouse and pulling that information for each person," said Meade County Clerk Katrina Fitzgerald, president of the clerks association.

On Tuesday, Thayer said he hadn't had time to read the League's report but that lawmakers could flesh out the restoration-of-rights process next year if necessary.

It's likely the Kentucky Corrections Department or another state agency would become the central clearinghouse for information on which felons are eligible to vote, rather than force county clerks to do the legwork, Thayer said.

The sponsor of HB 70, Rep. Jesse Crenshaw, D-Lexington, on Tuesday said the measure's future is uncertain. Crenshaw said he will recommend that the House reject the Senate's changes, probably leading to a House-Senate conference committee that tries to hammer out a compromise.

"I would prefer that all of those changes be removed," Crenshaw said. "House Bill 70 was intended to automatically restore the right to vote. Automatically. But every line in the Senate substitute starts with a statement as to why you should be excluded from having your rights restored."

John Cheves: (859) 231-3266. Twitter: @BGPolitics. Blog: bluegrasspolitics.bloginky.com

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