A Democratic voting rights bill that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell spent much of the week protesting could make his 2020 re-election bid more difficult.
Kentucky is one of only three states that impose lifetime voting bans on people with felony convictions. The bill championed by House Democrats would allow felons to vote in federal elections unless they’re still incarcerated at the time of the election.
“He is reinforcing his ideological position on something he has a personal interest in,” said Nicole Porter, director of advocacy for The Sentencing Project, which advocates for lifting felony bans.
A League of Women Voters of Kentucky report issued this week estimates that one out of every 11 adults in Kentucky — or more than 312,000 people — are barred from voting because of a felony conviction, a 67 percent increase over a similar study in 2006.
Some have argued that allowing felons to vote would benefit Democrats because felons tend to be disproportionately poor and racial minorities. According to the report, although African Americans make up 8 percent of the state’s population, one in every 4 —or 26 percent — of persons banned from voting are black.
The League said that support for the voting measure crosses party lines. A poll conducted by the group showed that 66 percent of Kentucky voters surveyed in December 2018 agreed that “a person who has completed all terms of their felony sentence should have their right to vote automatically restored.”
McConnell has written a newspaper editorial against the bill he’s dubbed the “Democrat Politician Protection Act” and in three days of speeches on the Senate floor decried it as an “unprecedented federal takeover of elections.”
He mentioned the felon provision for the first time Thursday as he argued that the Constitution gives state legislatures primary responsibility for setting the time, places, and “manner” of federal elections.
“There is no objective basis for the sweeping federal takeover of elections that House Democrats have dreamed up,” McConnell said. “It’s just a Washington D.C. power grab for its very own sake. Decision after decision that our Constitution properly leaves to the states just melts away in this proposal.”
Democrats are pushing a bill that among other things would repair the landmark voting rights law that the Supreme Court fractured in 2013 and that the previous Republican-controlled Congress appeared in no rush to repair.
The bill also proposes making Election Day a federal holiday and creating up to six days of paid leave for federal employees serving as poll workers — which McConnell cast as “a brand-new week of paid vacation for every federal employee who’d like to hover around while you cast your ballot.”
The legislation, which is the new Democratic House majority’s signature legislation, would allow felons to regain their voting rights after finishing their sentences.
McConnell on Thursday argued that the measure would take away a state’s right to “decide whether or how convicted felons have their voting rights restored.”
Gov. Matt Bevin soon after taking office in 2015 suspended his Democratic predecessor Gov. Steve Beshear’s executive order that automatically restored the right to vote to most nonviolent felons who have served out their sentences. Bevin said at the time it was “an issue that must be addressed through the legislature and by the will of the people.”
Virginia and Iowa also bar persons with felonies from voting, although recent Virginia governors have restored voting rights to large swaths of felons.
In Iowa, Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds earlier this month called for a state constitutional amendment to do away with the state ban. Florida voters in November restored voting rights to felons, with some exceptions, including those convicted of homicide.
“Kentucky is hanging out there all by itself and it’s not an enviable place to be,” said Judy Johnson, who chaired the League of Women Voters committee that developed the report.
The federal bill would affect races for the U.S. House, the U.S. Senate and the White House, but not statewide races, said Porter of The Sentencing Project.
Advocates for restoring felons’ right to vote are hoping to harness momentum from the Florida vote to convince Kentucky lawmakers to back legislation to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot.
McConnell has not commented publicly on the state ban. Kentucky Republican Sen. Rand Paul has supported giving voting rights back to non-violent felons after they complete their sentences. He testified in 2014 in Frankfort in support of state legislation that would restore the right to vote for non-violent felons.
The General Assembly in 2016 passed legislation that allows persons with certain Class D — or less serious — felony convictions to apply to have their felonies expunged. The League report says 2,032 have had their convictions expunged, allowing them the right to vote.
But the report says those persons, along with about 11,500 whose voting rights have been restored through partial pardon by governors, comprise less than 1 percent of those currently barred from voting.