Senate should stand up for voting rights

Gov. Steve Beshear, whose term ends Dec. 8, hinted last week that he will take action to restore voting rights to nonviolent felons who have served their time.

It’s not clear exactly what Beshear will do or how many will be affected, but it could be in the tens of thousands. There about 180,000 people who have completed their sentences for felonies, most of them non-violent, living in Kentucky, according to The Sentencing Project.

Despite a decade of efforts, a proposed constitutional amendment to automatically restore voting rights to most felons after they’ve completed their sentence has not passed out of the General Assembly to be voted on statewide. As a result, each individual must petition the governor to restore his or her voting rights, a laborious barrier for people who are struggling to reenter society. Beshear also mentioned developing a system to make the process easier, more automatic.

It’s a refreshing change from recent governors who rushed to pardon members of their administrations who have run afoul of the law. Since Beshear doesn’t have any of those to worry about, he can instead use his last days in office to significantly expand participation in our democracy rather than protecting a loyal few.

While Beshear’s actions will be welcome, it is past time for voting-right restoration to become the law in Kentucky, as it is in most states, rather than the prerogative of an individual.

This is a view shared by many Republicans, including Gov.-elect Matt Bevin, who affirmed it to Insider Louisville during the campaign, and Sen. Rand Paul, who in 2014 testified in favor of HB 70, a proposed constitutional amendment to allow restoration of voting rights. That bill passed in the Democratic House only to die in the Republican Senate. Bevin told Insider Louisville he believes as governor he can change the outcome in the Senate.

This would be a signature accomplishment for the newly empowered Republican Party in Kentucky, to champion expanding the franchise and reaching out to people who are trying to build productive lives after earlier mistakes.

As a result of failures in our society and criminal justice system, way too many of those people are black. A 2013 study by the League of Women Voters found that almost one in five black Kentuckians is disenfranchised, three times the national rate.

The reality – and it’s unacceptable – is that until voting rights are automatically restored for non-violent felons who’ve finished their sentences, Kentucky is disproportionately disenfranchising black people.

Voting is a fundamental right of citizenship. Denying it to so many, and so unequally, robs those individuals of full participation in society and diminishes us all.