KFTC members give testimony to national voting rights panel

KFTC members traveled to Nashville on May 8th to participate in the National Commission on Voting Rights’ regional hearing that was organized by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Tayna Fogle was called as an expert witness on the panel to discuss disenfranchisement of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals, while Teddi Smith-Robillard, Bonifacio Aleman, and Honey Dozier all attended to give public testimony as directly effected individuals. The panel lasted for four hours and covered a range of issues around voting rights, including election administration, dilution of minority power and redistricting, equal access to the political process, the impact of voter ID, and of course felony disenfranchisement. The regional hearing consisted of testimony from Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arkansas.Honey Dozier, Bonifacio Aleman, Teddi Smith Robillard

Members traveled to Nashville and sat for hours through the hearing to share their personal stories. “I feel it is necessary to reveal the discrepancies in the process to restore felons' civil rights to the rest of the nation,” Honey Dozer of KFTC and Jobs with Justice said after sharing her personal experience. Bonifacio Aleman, also with KFTC and Jobs with Justice, made it clear to the panel why he attended the hearing by saying, “Why do I care about voting? Because that is where our power lies.” And, Teddi Smith-Robillard shared her personal story and also challenged everyone to take action: “We need to take this issue to the streets because people aren’t listening.”

This hearing was one of many taking place across the nation. The Commission is conducting fact-finding hearings across the country that will look closely at the record of discrimination, election administration problems, voter registration procedures, and other challenges that voters are facing. The testimony, facts, and data gathered in the hearings, as well as state-specific documentary research, will be compiled into comprehensive reports. The Commission will write two reports: one report on voting discrimination and another on election administration and electoral reform. The reports and records from the hearings will be made available to anyone seeking to reform or improve existing voting laws including, but not limited to, policymakers, advocates, and the voting public. Kentucky NAACP President Raoul Cunningham also attended the forum and served as a guest commissioner. 

KFTC member and community activist Tayna Fogle gave her powerful expert testimony, which you can read in its entirety here:

Tayna Fogle’s Testimony

Public hearing before The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law

Nashville, Tennessee

May 8, 2014

My name is Tayna Fogle. I am a Kentuckian, a mother and grandmother. I am an advocate for the rights and needs of poor people and people of color, especially those who have been incarcerated. I’m also a member of the grassroots organization Kentuckians For The Commonwealth.Tayna Fogle, Expert Witness

The right to vote is a basic human right. But Kentucky’s outdated constitution denies that basic right to almost a quarter-million of our citizens. Kentucky is one of only three states (or four states if you count Virginia) that take away a person’s right to vote forever if he or she is convicted of a felony. Currently the only way to get those rights restored in our state is to receive an individual pardon from the governor.

Kentucky’s constitutional restriction on felon voting rights dates back to 1792. We were among the first states to ban citizens from voting after criminal convictions. The specific language has changed over the years, but it has always held the same meaning. The current language of Section 145 of the Kentucky Constitution was passed in 1891 and amended in 1955.

Section 145 states that every citizen of the US who is 18 years or older and living in our state is entitled to vote, except those convicted “of treason, or felony, or bribery in an election.” It says that “persons hereby excluded may be restored to their civil rights by executive pardon.” The same section bars people from voting who are incarcerated at the time of election, even if they have not been convicted of a felony. And it includes the awful language that “idiots and insane persons” may not vote. 

That’s what our constitution says. But I want to talk with you about the impact those words have on real people and their families and communities, especially black and brown people, and on our democracy as a whole.

I’ll start with my own story. I happened to fall under two governors. My voting rights were restored by Governor Paul Patton, a Democrat who served from 1995 to 2003. But the paperwork filed missed one indictment number. So I had to go back through the process under Governor Ernie Fletcher, a Republican who was elected in 2003. The second time around the application process had changed. I was required to write an essay, provide three character references, and pay a fee.

I was able to jump through those hoops. But no person should have to go through what I went through just to secure what should be a fundamental human right, the right to vote. And the facts make it clear that the barriers to voting are too high for most returning citizens. According to a 2013 report from the League of Women Voters, Kentucky has the third highest rate of disenfranchisement in the nation. One out of every 14 residents is disenfranchised, almost three times the national rate. We have the second highest rate of African American disenfranchisement in the country. More than 1 in 5 African Americans over the age of 18 is ineligible to vote. Again, that rate is nearly triple the national average for African Americans.National Commission on Voting Rights

In Kentucky, more than 243,000 people have lost their right to vote due to a felony conviction. Three-fourths of them, or more than 180,000 people, have completed their full sentence. If all those people lived in one place, they would make up Kentucky’s third largest city.

The KY Constitution allows the Governor to grant an executive pardon that restores an individual’s civil rights. It does not spell out any process for making those decisions. As a result, the process has, at times, become politicized. Some governors approve more than 90% of the applications they receive. At other times, the rate of approval has fallen to around 25%.

Governor Steve Beshear restored voting rights to 7,300 people during almost 6 years in office, an average of 1,300 per year. Governor Fletcher, on the other hand, only restored voting rights for 1,098 people during his 4 years in office, for an average of 274 people per year.

Currently under Governor Steve Beshear, former felons have to wait until they have served out all their prison time, probation and parole. Then, they have to fill out an application. To do that, they need to communicate with the Division of Probation and Parole to gather dates and case numbers related to any and all felony convictions. The probation officer has to sign and notarize the form before the paperwork can be submitted.

Governor Beshear’s office consults with local prosecuting attorneys before considering each application. As the Governor’s spokesperson told one reporter, “If a prosecutor objects, we give the application further consideration. Otherwise, the Governor routinely restores the right to vote and hold public office.” In other words, whether or not a person’s rights are restored can depend on the point of view of the local prosecutor. Some Commonwealth Attorneys sign off on most applications that cross their desks. Others approve very few.

It’s possible for a person to get their rights restored in as little as sixty days. But some requests are never granted, and there is no clear process or timeline for those decisions.

Along with a lot of other good people, I’ve been working for the last ten years to help pass a constitutional amendment in Kentucky that would automatically restore voting rights to most people when they complete their full sentence. To change our constitution, we need to first pass a bill through the legislature with 60% support in each chamber. Then the question goes on the ballot for a vote of the people.Teddi Smith-Robillard

We are so close. But once again this year the legislature went home without passing HB 70. The bill has widespread bi-partisan support, including from people like our Democratic Governor and Secretary of State, the Republican minority floor leader in our statehouse, and US Senator Rand Paul. We had two huge voting rights rallies at the statehouse this year, including one day where 4,000 people marched on the Capitol. The KY House has passed the bill nine times in the past eight years, but each time the measure has died in the Republican controlled Senate.

 Even in the Senate, we believe we have enough votes for the bill to pass with more than 60% support. But a small handful of Senate leaders are standing in the way. How one or two people can block 180,000 people from voting is beyond me. It seems to be all about their egos at this point. We should be out educating Kentuckians right now. HB 70 should be on the ballot. But instead we have to wait another two years – until 2016 – for our next shot at passage.

I’m not going to give up the fight. But this has been a hard pill to swallow. I’m really mad. And we need some help. We need help. I’m proud of our governor for taking a stand, but he needs to back up his words by issuing a blanket pardon to cover all 180,000 people who have served their sentence. I’m glad the US Attorney General is going after states like Texas and North Carolina for violating voting rights, but we need the federal government to shine a spot light on our situation in Kentucky.

 People like me who are former felons are just trying to get back to our dream. But at every turn that we take, we find that the process of re-entry gets harder and harder and harder. I’m not excusing any of my behavior – but the consequences ought to match the misbehavior. I don’t know what purpose keeping a person from voting serves. It has nothing to do with public safety.

 When you go to prison, you lose more than just your individual freedom. You lose your parenthood. You try to keep some dignity about yourself. When you come out you face the lack of employment and lack of housing. Your community may not accept you back. Your family may not accept you back. There is so much collateral damage. Why would we want make it even harder for people to get back on their feet?

We have statistics showing that people who vote are less likely to return to jail. That makes sense to me. For me, voting is a way of connecting my life to the torch that my mom carried and my granny carried while they were being mauled by dogs and fire-hoses. My Granny was a maid, a house-keeper. I don’t think she ever thought for a moment that her grandchildren were going to have to fight for our right to vote when we grew up.

Watching my son vote for the first time was like taking a breath of fresh air. To see him engaged has helped me keep focused. I don’t want to make any mistakes that could cause me to lose my rights again.

I’ve been in the trenches on this issue for a long time. I never expected clear sailing. Right now in Kentucky the disenfranchised, the poor, the minorities are still stuck with the same old hard process. We are still not represented. I’m very sad. It is time to lay this baby to bed. It is past time. But God is in control, and I know we are going to prevail.

 

 

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