Swayed by prominent Republicans, including Gov. Matt Bevin and Sen. Rand Paul, the Kentucky Senate, after years of obstruction, has approved putting the question of restoring felons’ voting rights on the ballot as a constitutional amendment.
The Senate’s long-awaited action comes as a big disappointment nonetheless, because it would restore no one’s right to vote.
All the amendment would do, if voters approve, is allow the legislature to develop rules for restoring felon rights. Given its long history of opposition, the Republican-controlled Senate could be trusted only to make the process as onerous and exclude as many potential voters as possible. Senate Bill 299, sponsored by Senate President Robert Stivers, is more a bad joke than a good-faith attempt to honor the commitments voiced by Bevin and Paul.
By contrast, House Bill 70 would, if voters approve, amend the constitution to automatically restore the vote to all but those convicted of the most violent felonies, sex crimes, treason and election bribery, after they had completed their sentences. The House approved the measure 82-9, with the support of many Republicans, including GOP leaders. The House has approved such an amendment in every session since 2007.
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Kentucky’s ban on voting lasts a lifetime unless the felon successfully petitions the governor. Nowhere in the country is it harder than here for those who have paid their debt to society to regain this fundamental right and duty of citizenship.
In his outreach to minority voters, Paul has admirably demanded reform of a criminal justice system that disproportionately imprisons, impoverishes and disenfranchises black Americans. While most of the Kentuckians who stand to regain the vote are white, one in four black Kentuckians is disenfranchised because of a criminal conviction, the League of Women Voters of Kentucky reported in 2006.
That’s the nation’s highest rate of minority disenfranchisement and something about which Kentucky should be profoundly ashamed.
Felons automatically gain the right to vote upon completing their sentences in 38 states and the District of Columbia. HB 70 would bring Kentucky into the mainstream.
In December, outgoing Gov. Steve Beshear issued an order streamlining the process whereby an estimated 180,000 Kentuckians could have regained the franchise. Despite campaign promises, Bevin, in one of his first official acts, rescinded the order, saying it exceeded the governor’s authority. “While I have been a vocal supporter of the restoration of rights,” Bevin explained, “it is an issue that must be addressed through the legislature and by the will of the people.”
The legislature should let the people vote on an amendment that does more than give Senate Republicans a chance to dither and delay. The Senate’s amendment is at best a pig-in-a-poke and at worst a cynical political ploy.
If they’re sincere, Bevin and Paul will push their fellow Republicans to put a real voting-rights amendment on the ballot.