Beshear right to restore felons’ voting rights

Kentucky’s constitution clearly empowers the governor to restore the voting rights of convicted felons, and outgoing Gov. Steve Beshear has put that power to very good use.

With the stroke of his pen Tuesday, Beshear restored voting rights to Kentuckians who have served their sentences for most non-violent crimes. (Excluded are those who were convicted of violent or sex crimes, bribery or treason.)

To its deep disgrace, Kentucky is one of only three states that permanently bar felons from voting. Most states have a process for automatic restoration of voting rights after a criminal sentence is completed.

The Brennan Center for Justice estimates that 180,000 Kentuckians have been barred from voting. That loss falls disproportionately hard on black Kentuckians. A 2013 study by the League of Women Voters found that almost one in five black Kentuckians is disenfranchised, three times the national rate.

Beshear’s order, which will also restore the right to hold public office, goes a long way toward reversing that injustice.

But a lot of work remains to restore this large population of non-violent criminals to productive roles in society. Many of them also have drug or alcohol abuse problems and will have a hard time getting jobs because of their criminal records.

The Kentucky Chamber of Commerce recently called for a state law expunging non-violent felony convictions, creating a clean slate for tens of thousands of Kentuckians. The chamber’s motive is simple: Employers need more workers. But everyone stands to benefit; research shows that working and voting reduce future criminal offenses and recidivism.

Gov.-elect Matt Bevin, a Republican, told the chamber during his campaign that he supports both voting-rights restoration and expungement – an encouraging sign since the opposition to restoring felons’ rights in the past has come from the Republican Senate.

The legislature, which convenes in January, should move on expungement and a permanent process for restoring the voting rights of non-violent felons.