Bevin should fight for voting rights

Gov. Matt Bevin’s legal reasoning may have been fuzzy, but his moral obligation is now clear: When the legislature convenes Tuesday, the new Republican governor must overcome roadblocks within his party to restoring the voting rights of felons who have paid their debts to society.

That is Bevin’s only choice after he overturned outgoing Gov. Steve Beshear’s executive order streamlining the process for regaining the right to vote.

Like Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul and state House Republican leader Jeff Hoover, candidate Bevin supported ending Kentucky’s lifetime disenfranchisement of felons. Only two other states have such a draconian ban.

But as governor, Bevin said in a Dec. 23 order that only a constitutional amendment, first approved by the legislature and then voters, can make restoration of voting rights automatic.

In most states, voting rights are automatically restored at some point after the criminal sentence is served. Some states allow parolees and probationers to vote, and in two states even inmates may vote. But Kentucky requires an act of the governor to restore a felon’s right to vote or hold public office. Beshear’s order streamlined that process for up to an estimated 180,000 Kentuckians.

Citing state constitutional provisions that empower the governor to restore civil rights, Beshear ordered that non-violent felons — excluding those convicted of election bribery, treason or sex abuse crimes — could apply to the Department of Corrections which would issue a certificate of civil rights restoration, after determining that all the criteria were satisfied, including no unpaid restitution.

Bevin suspended Beshear’s order and instructed Corrections to issue no voting-rights certificates.

Bevin said there’s a “serious legal question” about whether Beshear had the authority to do what he did. But really there’s almost no question that he did. In 2013 Virginia’s governor issued an order much like Beshear’s that stood. The next governor expanded it to more people and removed unpaid court costs and fees as a bar to voting.

Bevin could easily have let Beshear’s streamlined process stand. (Just as no one is likely to challenge Bevin’s order removing county clerks names from marriage licenses, even though Beshear determined only the legislature could make that change, no one was likely to challenge the voting-rights order, certainly not successfully.)

The only real opposition to opening the voting booth to more Kentuckians is in the Republican Senate, primarily, observers say, from Republican Floor Leader Damon Thayer. The House has repeatedly approved placing a constitutional amendment before voters that would automatically re-enfranchise felons. But the Senate has always killed or doomed it with poison pill provisions.

In his order, Bevin warned against viewing “this issue in partisan terms” and said it’s “fundamentally a question of democracy and fairness.” He’s right. If we really believe the penal system’s purpose is to rehabilitate not just punish, opening elections to those who have served their sentence is only fair and would discourage recidivism.

Prison populations have exploded, in large part because of sentencing that falls more harshly on minorities and poor people. One in four black Kentuckians is disenfranchised because of a criminal conviction, the nation’s highest rate of minority disenfranchisement, the League of Women Voters of Kentucky reported in 2006.

And, despite the huge number of felons, they are no more likely to flood the polls than other Kentuckians. Only 31 percent of registered voters turned out in November. With such dismal participation, we should hasten to remove obstacles for those who want to do their civic duty.

Voting-rights advocates have always wanted a constitutional amendment not just an executive order. Bevin should seize this chance to score an early bipartisan win for fairness and justice.