The right to vote is a basic human right. But Kentucky's outdated constitution denies that basic right to almost a quarter million of our citizens.
Kentucky is one of only three states that take away a person's right to vote forever, if he or she is convicted of a felony.
Currently the only way to get those rights restored is to receive an individual pardon from the governor.
I should know. My voting rights were restored first by Gov. Paul Patton, but the paperwork missed one indictment number. So I had to go back through the process under Gov. Ernie Fletcher. By that time, Fletcher had changed the application process to require an essay, three character references and a fee.
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House Bill 70, sponsored by Rep. Jesse Crenshaw of Lexington, is a proposed constitutional amendment that would automatically restore voting rights, and dignity, to most former felons once they serve their full sentences.
It has passed the Kentucky House eight years in a row with support from both Democrats and Republicans. But until this year, it never even got a hearing in the state Senate.
So imagine how it felt to be at the Capitol when the Senate finally took up the bill. It was good to know that there are people in both political parties willing to speak out against injustice and support voting rights. I was glad to hear from U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, Crenshaw, Rep. Jeff Hoover, state Sens. Gerald Neal and Reggie Thomas and others who support this bill.
Lots of people have said that Paul has a political angle. I've never met a politician who didn't. Frankly, I'm glad he's speaking out on this issue. We need more leaders who are willing to push for voting rights. Let's not forget that we are working for the day when a quarter of a million Kentuckians get their right to vote restored. I don't care who gets the credit.
But I was disappointed and ashamed when a small group of Republican senators managed to push through a very different version of the bill that day.
The committee substitute pushed by Sen. Damon Thayer of Georgetown destroyed the original intent of HB 70. Instead of expanding participation in our democracy, the Senate version seems designed to suppress votes.
After eight years of ignoring this issue, the Senate committee didn't even take time to hear testimony from former felons, the people this bill would affect. Instead, in a matter of just a few hours, Senate leaders passed a draft of the bill few people had seen through a committee and then a vote on the Senate floor.
As I've thought back on that day, I keep seeing visions of black people getting mauled by dogs, getting water hosed, even getting hanged in the struggle to secure voting rights.
Those things happened not so very long ago throughout the South, including here in Kentucky. We claim to live in America, the land of the free. But deep down, when do we begin to know we are free?
I've been in the trenches on this issue for a long time. I never expected clear sailing. But God is in control, and I know we are going to prevail. Now that the bill is through the Senate, there will be negotiations between the House and Senate. I'm trusting the process and the people at the table. But I know their process will work a whole lot better if all of us stay active and keep making our voices heard.
That's why I'm asking for your help. Whether or not you have the right to vote, please call the legislative message line at 1-800-372-7181. Leave a message for your senator and Senate leadership. Tell them to do the right thing: support and pass the House version of HB 70.