Kentuckians would vote at the polls in November on a constitutional amendment to let the legislature set rules for restoring the voting rights of felons under a bill approved Wednesday by a Senate committee.
Senate Bill 299, sponsored by Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, would change the Kentucky Constitution to allow the state legislature next year to come up with guidelines on restoration of voting rights for non-violent felons.
The Senate State and Local Government Committee approved the measure on a 10-0 vote and sent it to the full Senate for its consideration.
The measure also needs approval by the state House before it could be on the November ballots. Governors have no veto power over constitutional amendments.
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Stivers, who acknowledged that he was not emotionally involved with the issue of felon voting rights when it was debated by lawmakers in previous years, said a constitutional amendment is needed to give the General Assembly the authority to set up procedures to restore voting rights to felons.
Currently, felons must apply for an executive pardon by the governor in order to vote.
Stivers said he prefers his bill over House Bill 70, another constitutional amendment that also states guidelines for restoring voting rights to felons. Stivers said he does not think the General Assembly has the authority to set those parameters until after a constitutional amendment is approved.
“It’s better for us to have the authority and then a deliberative process” of what the standards should be, he said. “HB 70 gives automatic restoration while my bill would allow the General Assembly to come up with the procedures for the restoration.”
HB 70, which the House already approved, would allow most felons to have their voting rights restored once their sentence or probation is served. Under it, voting rights would not be restored for felons convicted of treason, intentional homicide and specific sex crimes.
Thirty-eight states and the District of Columbia currently allow automatic restoration of felon voting rights, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Stivers also said he favors a “waiting period” before allowing former felons to vote.
Pam Newman of Louisville, a member of the advocacy group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, said Stivers’ bill “puts off” restoring voting rights to felons while HB 70 would allow that to happen immediately if voters approve it in November.
“There’s no need for us to wait any longer,” she said.
Newman said she is interested in the issue because her late mother was a convicted felon who could vote in Pennsylvania but was denied that right when she moved to Kentucky.