Momentum Building for Voting Rights in Kentucky

Council Member Ford and KFTC members

Momentum is building in the campaign to restore voting rights to former felons who have served their sentence in Kentucky. And comments made this week by US Senator Rand Paul are the latest indication that proposed changes to the Kentucky Constitution could finally win approval in 2014.

For nearly 8 years, KFTC and our allies have organized, lobbied, door-knocked, rallied and prayed together in support of a constitutional amendment known as HB 70. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jesse Crenshaw, seeks to reform Kentucky’s outdated constitution, which has barred people with felony convictions from voting since 1792. Once adopted, the measure would restore civil rights to most non-violent offenders upon completion of their full sentence.

The bill has been introduced each year since 2005 and has been passed by wide bi-partisan majorities in the Kentucky House in each of the last seven years. Senators Gerald Neal and Denise Harper Angel have also introduced similar legislation in the state Senate. However, the issue has never been given a hearing, much less a vote, in that chamber.

Despite the roadblock in the Senate, support for HB 70 has continued to grow among many state senators and the public. Last winter the Lexington City Council unanimously approved a resolution in support of HB 70. Public opinion polls show that a majority of Kentuckians are supportive of restoring voting rights. And, during each of the past two sessions, KFTC’s conversations with lawmakers have indicated that HB 70 could pass the state Senate with the 60% majority needed for a constitutional amendment, if it were allowed to come up for a vote.

Throughout this summer, KFTC members have continued to work hard to help win support for HB 70 in the legislature and get it on the ballot in 2014. As part of that grassroots strategy, groups of constituents and disenfranchised voters have held in-district meetings with a number of senators around the state. So far those conversations have been encouraging, including several with Republican senators who have indicated their strong support for HB 70.

Those efforts got an unexpected boost this week when US Senator Rand Paul weighed in with a statement of support. According to the Louisville Courier Journal:

“Senator Paul said during the meeting in western Louisville that he believes felons should have their rights restored automatically — either immediately after completing their sentences or at some specified point after the sentences are served. He said he plans to talk to leaders in the Kentucky Senate about their opposition and would be willing to travel to Frankfort to testify in favor of legislation to restore voting rights.”

As Central Kentucky KFTC member Sarah Thomas noted, “I thought his statement was a very positive step. I hope that Senator Paul and other elected officials realize that now is the time to restore to these citizens one of their fundamental rights as Americans. His suggestion of an additional waiting period is unnecessary, but I’m encouraged overall.”

Scott County KFTC member Rosanne Klarer agreed, saying, “Given Senator Rand Paul's libertarian roots, it seems a no-brainer that he would go for the restoration of voting rights for former felons who have served their time. I applaud his support for protecting the civil rights of all citizens under our Constitution.”

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Your help is needed to seize this moment and keep moving forward!
In the coming days and weeks, KFTC members will reach out to US Senator Rand Paul and all 138 members of the Kentucky General Assembly to make a strong case for restoring voting rights and passing HB 70 in 2014. Your help is needed!

  1. Call the toll-free legislative message line at 1-800-372-7181. Ask to leave a message for your own state Senator and Kentucky Senate President Robert Stivers: “Voting is a fundamental right and a cornerstone of our democracy. Please do everything in your power to help pass HB 70 in 2014. It’s time to restore the right to vote for former felons who have served their full sentence.”

  2. Host a democracy party on November 5th. KFTC members across the state are inviting their friends and neighbors to attend more than 50 Democracy Parties during the first week of November. These events are a great way to connect with hundreds of people and engage them in KFTC’s efforts to grow a healthy democracy in Kentucky. Typically the first Tuesday in November is Election Day. There is no election this year in Kentucky, so we are using the opportunity to build momentum for a big year ahead. If you are interested in being a house-party host, contact Lisa@kftc.org or call 859-200-5159.

  3. Write a letter to the editor of your local paper. It’s important to make our voices heard as this issue begins to get more attention and coverage. If you want to write a letter in response to comments made by Senator Paul, here are a few suggestions: Be positive. Welcome his statements in support of voting rights. Stress that HB 70 already has strong bi-partisan support in both the House and Senate. Make it clear that proposals to add additional restrictions (including new waiting periods) are unnecessary and unhelpful. It is time for the KY Senate to pass HB 70 and put it on the ballot for a vote by the people!

Background information about the campaign to restore voting rights to former felons in KY

Kentucky is one of a small handful of states (including Florida, Iowa and Virginia) that permanently bar any citizen with a felony record from voting unless he or she receives an individual pardon from the governor. As a result, a quarter-million Kentuckians with felony convictions are currently barred from voting, including about 181,000 people who have completed their sentence.

The loss of voting rights disproportionately affects low-income and communities of color. Kentucky has the second highest African-American disenfranchisement rate in the country. One in five voting age African-Americans cannot vote in Kentucky

HB 70 has passed the Kentucky House with wide bi-partisan support for seven years straight. Its language is the result of a compromise struck between House Democratic and Republican leaders in 2007. During those negotiations, Kentucky House members decided to exclude most violent offenders from the bill. Under HB 70, people convicted of a range of violent crimes would still need to apply for an individual pardon, as they do today.

In other words, the proposed language of HB 70 is a big improvement over Kentucky’s current constitutional language, but it would still be more restrictive than the laws of 39 other states. That’s how many states currently allow for automatic restoration of voting rights to all individuals once they are released from prison, or their probation ends, or their time on parole ends. In fact, two states in this group never take away the right to vote in the first place, even in prison.

Senator Rand Paul and a few members of the state Senate appear to be floating the idea that an additional waiting period should be required before a person’s voting rights are restored. That idea is not supported by the Kentucky Voting Rights Coalition, of which KFTC is a member. As Michael Hiser, a former felon and KFTC member from Bullitt County explained, “I don’t buy it. There are already waiting periods built into the sentencing process. It’s called probation and parole. Once someone has served their time, they ought to be able to vote.”

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