Voting rights restored to a very few

Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin
Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin AP

Gov. Matt Bevin this week restored the voting rights of 24 Kentuckians who had felony convictions and had completed their sentences.

Good for them.

Unfortunately, Bevin’s action, the first felon voting restorations since he took office in December 2015, leaves about 1,100 who have petitioned him still disenfranchised. It also leaves out about 180,000 former felons, most of whose rights would have been restored under an executive order filed by former Gov. Steve Beshear shortly before he left office that was overturned by Bevin.

Kentucky is among the most regressive states when it comes to restoring voting rights to felons who have served their time. In many states restoration is automatic for many non-violent offenders who have completed their terms, but in Kentucky under our constitution only the governor is empowered to restore voting rights.

Despite his self-described belief in second chances, Bevin has the worst record among modern governors for restoring voting rights to people seeking to fully rejoin society. Last year, his first in office, Bevin became the first governor in over two decades to fail to restore voting rights for even a single person. Bevin’s office did not offer any explanation for the long delay or the criteria used to select those who would be allowed to vote again and did not respond to questions on his action.

Oddly, despite the very long waiting list that includes some who have been waiting for years, most of Bevin’s two dozen are people who only very recently finished their sentences.

Even odder, while most of the 24 were guilty of drug crimes, Kenneth Lee and Ruth Gambill had pleaded guilty to paying kickbacks to former Morgan County Judge-Executive Tim Conley in a bid-rigging scheme that got them bridge construction contracts. As both candidate and governor, Bevin has consistently promised to end what he calls a pay-to-play culture in Kentucky government. Yet, he singled them from among over 1,000 applicants to rejoin those entrusted with electing public officials.

The General Assembly must write a constitutional amendment to remedy this chaotic and unfair situation and place it on the ballot for voter approval in 2018, a move Bevin has endorsed.

In the meantime, we can only hope that Bevin will hasten to allow several hundred other former felons to join the Gambills in this fundamental right of citizenship.

Felon voting rights among the states

  • Maine and Vermont: never disenfranchise, even in prison.
  • 14 states and the District of Columbia: restore automatically upon release from prison.
  • 28 states: restore automatically when parole and/or probation complete.
  • 9 states: require action by governor or a court.

Some states appear in more than one category because different offenders are treated differently.

Source: National Conference of State Legislatures, ncsl.org.