More than 160,000 Kentuckians still cannot vote because of felony convictions

Published 4:20 pm Thursday, February 23, 2023

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

By McKenna Horsley

A voting rights group wants Kentuckians to decide on a constitutional amendment that would automatically restore the vote to convicted felons who have completed their sentences — a change that a recent poll found has strong public support.

The League of Women Voters of Kentucky on Tuesday voiced support for Senate Bill 164, sponsored by Sen. Brandon Storm, R-London.

Email newsletter signup

Introduced last week, the bill would let voters decide on a constitutional amendment restoring voting rights to persons convicted of felonies once they complete their sentences and restoring other civil rights three years after completion. The felonies could not have involved treason, election fraud or bribery in elections.

Cindy Heine, the League’s legislative liaison, said the group thinks Storm’s bill would restore the vote to most of the 161,506 Kentuckians who are still permanently disenfranchised. The only paths to regaining the vote now are a pardon by the governor or expungement of a conviction, both burdensome processes.

Kentucky still has one of the nation’s highest rates of citizens barred from voting by a felony conviction, despite Gov. Andy Beshear’s 2019 order restoring rights to those convicted of a nonviolent felony, according to a League report released Tuesday.

It is “long past time for Kentuckians to be permitted to vote on a constitutional amendment to determine whether the permanent ban on voting should be lifted,” the nonpartisan group says.

The League commissioned a statewide Mason-Dixon poll last month that found 68% of Kentucky voters support automatic restoration of voting rights after completing a sentence, while 24% oppose it.

It’s about “dignity, humanity”

The League also supports  House Bill 97, introduced by Rep. Keturah Herron, D-Louisville. Herron’s proposed amendment is similar to Storm’s except it would restore civil rights after five years.

As the League released the latest in its series of voting rights reports, Herron underscored the importance of the right to vote.

“I believe that having voting rights restored — it’s about dignity, it’s about humanity and it’s about letting people know that we see you and we want to hear you,” the representative said. The League reports that 4.54% of Kentuckians have been barred from voting, seventh-highest in the nation, compared to a national disenfranchisement rate of 1.99%.More than one in 10 Black Kentuckians have lost the right to vote, or  11.47% of the voting-age population, almost double the national rate of 5.28%. That’s the eighth-highest among states. Of the 257,551 voting eligible African Americans in Kentucky, 29,533 are banned from voting. Latino Kentuckians, with a voting eligible population of 62,040, are disenfranchised at a rate of 4.06% (2,516), the sixth-highest nationally. The average national rate for Latino Americans is 1.7%.Alaina Sweasy, who was granted a partial pardon by Gov. Matt Bevin, said when she went to the polls to vote, she was asked for paperwork in addition to her ID by a poll worker. She felt ashamed after the interaction. Currently, Sweasy is a social worker and lobbyist. “I’m more than the worst thing that I’ve ever done,” Sweasy said. “It should not be this hard to participate in the democratic process. And we will not stop until we are whole human beings.”Marcus Jackson said he was not covered under Gov. Andy Beshear’s 2019 executive order restoring voting rights to more than 140,000 Kentuckians with non-violent felony convictions because of a 1992 conviction for a crime that he said he did not commit. Since then, he has gone on to work with the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky and advocates for restoring voting rights. He added that he was inspired by the work of other advocates. To those who are serving their sentences, he said: “There are people still willing to give you a chance. You are more than that mistake that you made.”

Kentucky out of step with other states

Kentucky is one of three states that permanently bars anyone with a felony conviction from voting. The other states are Iowa and Virginia. The national trend is to restore voting rights automatically, especially for those who have completed their sentences, according to the League report.

The League has released reports on voting rights of convicted felons in the commonwealth since 2006.

Some bills have been introduced in the General Assembly to work toward restoring voting rights since 2020. During the last legislative session, three bills that would have put a constitutional amendment on the ballot did not receive a hearing, the League said.

Kentucky’s 1891 Constitution permanently bans citizens from voting if convicted of a felon. The League report says that the only way to currently restore voting rights is by an executive pardon or expungement, which can be difficult and expensive.

On his third day in office, Beshear issued an executive order restoring voting rights to more than 140,000 Kentuckians who completed sentences for nonviolent offenses.

“The civil rights of thousands of Kentuckians are still left outside the scope of these requirements and remain unaffected by the new policy,” the League’s report said.

“Studies show that restoring voting rights reduces rates of recidivism, or re-offending, meaning that our communities are safer with restoration of rights,” the report adds.

“In addition, the costs of re-offending (arrests, courts, prison) are avoided. Studies also demonstrate expungement leads to increased employment and income. Supports for reintegrating into society, by restoring voting rights and expungement of records, are important factors for Kentucky’s future.”

Here’s what the League recommends:

• Place a constitutional amendment on the ballot allowing Kentuckians to decide whether voting rights should be automatically restored.

• Create a coordinated government effort that fully implements Executive Order 2019-003 restoring the right to vote, including a robust public education campaign to inform, promote, assist and provide resources in the restoration process.

• Release figures annually on the number of voting rights applications filed and the number approved.

• Provide statements of the reasons for the governor’s decisions on individual applications for reinstatement of voting rights.

• Eliminate the $50 filing fee and the $250 application fee for felony expungement.