Bringing up rear on ex-felon rights; Va. governor has restored some rights

Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell's recent move to automatically restore voting rights to ex-felons after incarceration leaves Kentucky as the last state that permanently disenfranchises convicted felons even after they have served probation and parole — an antiquated injustice firmly enshrined in the state constitution.

Noting that "America is a land of opportunity and second chances," McDonnell courageously advocated the restitution of rights for those convicted of nonviolent crimes "who have fully paid their debt for their crimes."

The cause of felons' rights, usually championed by liberals, has been refreshingly taken up by a Republican governor concerned with the democratic vitality of his state.

In Kentucky, however, both attempts in this year's legislative session to restore voting rights failed in committee, leaving felons who have served their due time no recourse but an onerous and slow-moving application to the governor for the restoration of their civil rights.

The considerable losses to democracy — 180,000 Kentuckians are barred from voting — disproportionately affect minority communities.

Troublingly, one in four black adults in Kentucky cannot vote, crippling the political power of an already marginalized group.

The permanent ostracism of some citizens from civic participation is spiteful and needlessly punitive: disempowering ex-felons does not help victims or public safety.

If anything, pursuing policies limiting civil rights counterproductively furthers the disillusionment and alienation of fellow citizens struggling to reenter society.

Research shows that recidivism rates actually decline with voter participation. Voting is the essential right of democracy.

People who have gone to prison and fulfilled all sentencing requirements have discharged their debt to society and deserve a voice in their government.

It's absurd that restitution of voting rights must operate through the same channel of executive pardon.

But Gov. Steve Beshear cannot unilaterally correct this inequity: Kentucky legislators ought to pass an amendment to the state constitution that could then be ratified by the people, a majority of whom already support the provision.

Rather than lagging behind the rest of the country and letting spitefulness overwhelm serious democratic considerations, Kentucky should reverse course.

Thousands are already paying the price.