Merlene Davis: Ex-felons join Frankfort rally seeking to restore their voting rights

Teddi Smith-Robillard has lived in Lexington off and on for many years, splitting time between here, New York and San Diego.

"I would stay long enough to clean up what trouble I was in and then I'd leave," the 74-year-old said.

Her troubles stemmed from alcohol addiction and some emotional problems that the alcohol was supposed to alleviate.

In Lexington in 1980, during one of her binges when she was in a generous mood and treating others around her to drinks, she wrote a few checks that she knew good and well would bounce.

She pleaded guilty when charged with a felony and was sentenced to 21/2 years in jail.

When she had fulfilled her sentence, she went to San Diego, enrolled in college in her 40s, earned certificates and a degree, worked for a U.S. Representative, and voted.

She returned to Lexington permanently in 2006, but she didn't check her record until years later, thinking the representative she worked for had expunged it as he had promised.

He hadn't.

Her record had been sealed instead and Smith-Robillard was still considered an ex-felon. Because of that, she could not vote in Kentucky, even though she had been voting in New York and in California.

See, a felony conviction in Kentucky tends to be a life sentence. Convicted felons here have a hard time finding employment, obtaining a license in certain professions, and living in certain places.

In fact, there is at least one local business that brags about not hiring ex-felons. So much for forgiveness and rehabilitation.

Smith-Robillard said she was glad she hadn't tried to vote, because if she had she would have been committing a crime.

"I hadn't worried about voting here because I never thought I would stay, especially after my mother died," she said.

But she did stay, and in 2012 she began working to restore her rights, including filling out an application and writing an essay about how her life has changed.

That's why on Nov. 6, 2012, some of her friends received phone calls at five minutes after 6 a.m.

"I was telling them I had voted," she said, excitement still in her voice.

And that is also why she will be in Frankfort on Wednesday, lobbying legislators, especially members of the Kentucky Senate, and attending the Voting Rights Lobby Day and Rally in Frankfort sponsored by Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.

The hope is that hundreds of people will show legislators how important it is to pass House Bill 70, which has been sponsored by Rep. Jesse Crenshaw, D-Lexington, for many years, and Senate Bill 15, both of which would allow former felons convicted of non-violent crimes to automatically regain their right to vote.

Passage of both bills means the measure would appear on a ballot so that Kentuckians could vote it up or down.

"I think it will pass this year," Smith-Robillard said. "Once you no longer owe the law enforcement or the courts, the parole or probation system, and you have met all their requirements, you are no longer a felon. Still, you can work, pay taxes, but you cannot vote. That is the felony right there."

The tide does appear to be turning in Kentucky. Even Conservative Republican Sen. Rand Paul is in Smith-Robillard's corner. Paul has stated he will fight at the state and federal levels to have the voting rights of former felons automatically restored in most cases. In fact, he said he wanted to see some non-violent crimes reduced to misdemeanors, "so you don't get in that trap."

"If he can do that, then more power to him," said April M. Browning. "I tip my hat to him."

Browning has recently started the process to restore her right to vote after a felony drug conviction and release from five years of probation.

"It takes a very long time," she said. "It is a long, tedious and ridiculous process, especially for people who don't know their rights."

And that is the problem, said the Rev. Anthony Everett, founder and pastor of Nia Community of Faith. "It is not a very clear-cut process."

Everett said he knows of cases in which people started the process, made a technical error, resubmitted the paperwork, but were turned away because so much time had passed.

"A lot of people who have gone through it have been unsuccessful," he said.

But Browning is not about to give up.

"There is a point in life when everyone deserves a second chance," said Browning, 34. "I was 19 when I got my first felony, which wouldn't even be considered a felony today.

"I go to school full-time, I am a mother, and I have two jobs. I deserve to have a voice. I pay taxes, I deserve to be represented and so do many thousands of other Kentuckians who are disenfranchised for life."

Everett will be attending the rally and speaking to legislators, he said. Smith-Robillard will be there, too.

"Many of the people have records because of addictions," she said. "And most of them haven't committed a crime in 15, 20, 30 years."