Outgoing Kentucky Governor Restores Voting Rights for Former Felons

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Last week, just before the Thanksgiving holiday, Kentucky’s outgoing Governor issued an executive order that restores voting rights for approximately 180,000 individuals who had lost those rights because of conviction for a non-violent felony. The Associated Press has more (via Kentucky.com):

The outgoing Democratic governor of Kentucky signed an executive order Tuesday to restore the right to vote and hold public office to thousands of non-violent felons who’ve served out their sentences.

The order from Gov. Steve Beshear — who leaves office next month — does not include those convicted of violent crimes, sex offenses, bribery or treason. Kentucky already restores voting rights to some nonviolent convicted felons, but the felon must apply to the governor’s office, which approves them on a case by case basis.

This new order automatically restores voting rights to convicted felons who meet certain criteria upon their release. Those who have already been released can fill out a form on the state Department of Corrections’ website.

“All of our society will be better off if we actively work to help rehabilitate those who have made a mistake,” Beshear said. “And the more we do that, the more the entire society will benefit.”

Beshear’s action follows unsuccessful attempts to accomplish rights restoration legislatively:

Kentucky was one of four states that did not automatically restore voting rights to felons once they completed all the terms of their sentences. About 180,000 in Kentucky have served their sentences yet remain banned from casting ballots.

The Kentucky legislature has tried and failed numerous times to pass a bill to restore voting rights to felons. The Republican-controlled Senate would agree only if there was a five-year waiting period, which Democrats refused.

All eyes now turn to incoming GOP Governor Matt Bevin, who has the power to rescind the order but has previously indicated his support for rights restoration. The New York Times has more:

As an executive order, the new policy can be altered or scrapped by a future governor. But the initial response from the governor-elect, Matt Bevin, a conservative Republican, was positive.

“Governor-elect Bevin has said many times that the restoration of voting rights for certain offenders is the right thing to do,” said Jessica Ditto, a spokeswoman for Mr. Bevin’s transition office. Mr. Bevin first learned of the order on Tuesday, she said, and will evaluate it in the coming weeks.

Nationally, the drive to restore the right to vote to former convicts has gained bipartisan support as a way to promote the re-entry of prisoners to society and to reduce the disproportionate toll on potential black voters, a result of higher criminal conviction rates for African-Americans.

“America is the land of second chances,” Mr. Bevin, who was known as a Tea Party candidate, said in a debate in October.

The key consideration may be legislative involvement as opposed the desire to restore rights to former felons. The AP again:

Republican State Rep. Jeff Hoover, the minority floor leader of the state House of Representatives, said he supports restoring voting rights to convicted felons but opposes Beshear’s method of doing it.

“It should be the role of the legislature, not one person, which should address these issues through legislative debate,” Hoover said in a news release.

These developments are key on two key fronts. First, Kentucky’s action (for now) continues the expansion of voting rights for formerly incarcerated individuals that we have seen in Virginia, California and elsewhere. Perhaps more importantly, the use of the executive order by an outgoing governor will likely stoke tensions, both between branches of government and between parties. That said, it may be difficult for legislators to “un-ring the bell” on rights restoration – especially if the incoming Governor is generally supportive of the policy underlying his predecessor’s action.

It promises to be an eventful 2016 in Kentucky – stay tuned …

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