FRANKFORT — Despite misgivings from Democrats, a state constitutional amendment that would restore most felons' voting rights after a five-year waiting period passed the state Senate on Wednesday with overwhelming support.
A bipartisan vote of 34-4 approved the measure, which was a Republican substitute for legislation that would create automatic restoration, and the legislature is now tasked with finding a compromise between the House and Senate versions.
Democrats argued that the five-year waiting period, which Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, added to win Republican votes, was tantamount to another punitive measure for felons who already had paid their debts to society.
Thayer, noting a 37 percent recidivism rate for felons within the first few years of their release, said he and other Republicans could not agree to the measure without a waiting period.
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Thayer urged senators to "not give up the good for the sake of the perfect."
Rep. Jesse Crenshaw, D-Lexington, and the Democratic House of Representatives have passed similar measures repeatedly, only to see them die in the Republican-controlled Senate.
Behind a push from Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, who testified at a state Senate hearing on the proposed amendment earlier Wednesday, Republicans were largely unified in their support.
But Crenshaw, who testified alongside Paul, said he could not support the amendment with a five-year waiting period included.
Sen. Reggie Thomas, D-Lexington, voted in favor of the amendment in committee but with reservations, saying he thought the waiting period was "punitive and oppressive."
"Hopefully reason will prevail in (conference) committee," Thomas said.
Sen. Joe Bowen, R- Owensboro, chairman of the State and Local Government Committee that heard testimony, urged Crenshaw and other unhappy Democrats to remember that "politics is the art of compromise."
After the amendment passed out of committee unanimously, Paul, who has championed the issue nationally and in the state, said he thought a conference committee made up of lawmakers from the House and Senate would reach an agreement.
"I think they'll achieve a compromise," Paul said. "But I would say that we've gone a long way from a bill that was never voted on in the Senate, never had a hearing on, to getting a hearing and getting a vote today, I think it's a huge step forward."
If the two sides can agree, voters would decide the constitutional amendment's fate at the ballot box in November. Crenshaw's measure was approved 82-12 by the House in January.
Crenshaw's version of the bill would affect about 180,000 felons who have completed their sentences, but it would not apply to those who have committed intentional murder, rape, sodomy or a sexual offense with a minor. The Senate's version would broaden the exclusion to those convicted of any felony sexual offense and those with multiple felony convictions.
Under current law, felons must petition the governor for a partial pardon to restore their voting rights.