FRANKFORT — A slim majority of Kentuckians supports changing the state Constitution to automatically restore voting rights to most convicted felons after they serve their sentences, according to a new Bluegrass Poll.
The issue was hotly debated in this year's state legislative session but did not win final approval.
Fifty-two percent of Kentuckians support such a change, while 34 percent oppose it, according to the poll conducted by SurveyUSA for the Lexington Herald-Leader, the Courier-Journal, WKYT-TV and WHAS-TV. Fourteen percent of respondents were not sure.
The telephone survey was of 1,782 registered voters across the state from May 14 through May 16. It had a margin of error of plus or minus 2.4 percentage points.
The poll asked respondents their opinion of a proposed state constitutional amendment that would automatically restore voting rights to felons convicted of most crimes, not including murder and sexual offenses, once they complete their sentences.
For years, the Democrat-led House had passed a bill restoring voting rights and the Republican-led Senate had killed it. But this year, several GOP politicians, including U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, endorsed a version of the bill.
"I think, particularly for nonviolent crimes, we should try to reincorporate people back into society," Paul told a panel of state senators in February.
The House once again approved the measure, but the Senate changed it to require felons to wait five years, with no misdemeanor or felony convictions during that time, before they could register to vote. The Senate version also excluded felons with multiple prior offenses.
More than half of the 180,000 Kentuckians barred from voting because of a felony conviction would remain permanently disenfranchised under the Senate version, according to an analysis by the League of Women Voters of Kentucky.
The sponsor of the bill, Rep. Jesse Crenshaw, D-Lexington, rejected the Senate plan, and the two sides were unable to negotiate a compromise.
Crenshaw, who is retiring from the legislature at the end of this year, said he was not surprised by the latest poll numbers.
"I've always felt that if Kentuckians were allowed to vote on this issue at the polls to change the Constitution, a majority would support it," Crenshaw said.
He also said he was not surprised that the poll showed more Democrats (62 percent) than Republicans (42 percent) support the proposed change.
"Though it's been traditionally viewed as a Democratic issue, it's really a people issue to do the right thing," he said.
He predicted that more Republican voters will back the issue as Paul and other GOP leaders speak on its behalf.
Paul's support, however, appears to have had little effect on Kentucky voters so far. In a Bluegrass Poll conducted for the Courier-Journal in February 2013, 51 percent favored the constitutional amendment and 38 percent opposed it.
Crenshaw also said he was pleased that a majority of whites and blacks support the measure.
The poll showed 60 percent of black people and 51 percent of white people are in favor of the amendment.
To poll respondent Bill Fries of Louisville, the issue is cut and dried.
"If convicts serve their time, to me they no longer are in trouble," he said. "They have served their sentences and should be able to start life anew."
But respondent Harold Miller of Louisville said people who commit felonies have forfeited their right to vote.
"You want to keep your rights? Don't break the law," he said.
House Speaker Greg Stumbo, D-Prestonsburg, said in an email that he has supported the amendment for years and regrets that the Senate and Crenshaw could not reach a compromise on it.
"We are only one of a few states where this process is not virtually automatic, which needs to change," he said.
Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, took issue with how the poll's question was worded.
He contended that the question asked in the poll would make most people think about lower-level felonies, such as theft and drug possession charges, rather than more serious felonies, such as public corruption, racketeering and habitual offenders.
"That was the position of the Senate, that what they were proposing in the House was too narrow," Stivers said. "I think it needs more work."