Change in felons voting rights sought

Scott Wartman
June 7, 2013
Kentucky Enquirer

Shawnika Gill won’t get a chance to vote in the state of Kentucky unless the governor says she can.

That’s because Kentucky has some of the most restrictive laws in the country for felons who want their right to vote restored and is one of only four states that requires the governor to sign off on the person’s application.

But a group of political activists and those who work with felons have pushed in recent years for a change in the law and hope to gain traction with the new Senate leadership that took over this year.

Gill, 37, of Covington said a felony burglary conviction in 1996 at the age of 20 has kept her from the ballot box in Kentucky, even 10 years after she got out of prison. She said she feels she did her time.

“I feel like I pay my taxes like everybody else and want to speak on things that are going on, especially gay marriage and things” Gill said. “I want to marry my mate. I want to be able to put her on my income tax.”

In 38 states, most felons get voting rights restored automatically upon completion of the sentence, with some making exceptions for violent crimes. Other states have a time period after the sentence before voting rights get restored.

Some hope to bring Kentucky more in line with the rest of the country.

At a recent public meeting in Northern Kentucky with Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes about voting laws, several people wore stickers “I voted but 243,842 Kentuckians could not. Restore voting rights to former felons.” Around the country, an estimatd 5.8 million felons can’t vote, according to research and advocacy group The Sentencing Project.

A bill that would automatically restore most felons’ right to vote after a probationary period has passed the Kentucky House for several sessions but has not gotten through the Senate. The bill introduced last session would amend the constitution meaning voters would have to approve it. It would still bar people convicted of some crimes, including murder and sex crimes.

State Rep. Arnold Simpson, D-Covington, who has co-sponsored the bill the past several sessions, said lawmakers will try again next year with the hopes the bill will get further under the new Senate leadership.

“Once and individual has spent time, we need to remove that scarlet letter from his head that precludes him from participating in the democracy we all enjoy,” Simpson said.

Support for the bill largely falls along partisan lines, with Democrats in favor and Republicans against.

“There is a process in place for former felons to have their voting rights restored,” said Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, the Senate majority leader. “They can appeal to the governor, and fill out a short application. Reports are Gov. Steve Beshear is restoring those voting rights at a faster rate than any governor in recent memory.”

Under Beshear, the number of felons whose voting rights have been restored have gone up compared to that of his predecessor, Republican Ernie Fletcher.

Beshear has restored the voting rights of 7,300 people, an average of 1,300 a year, since he took office in Dec. 2007, statistics from the Kentucky Secretary of State showed. Fletcher restored the voting rights of 1,098 people his entire four years in office. Fletcher imposed tougher standards on felons who wanted to vote and required a written letter explaining why they think they should be allowed to vote and three references. In 2008, Beshear eliminated the filing fee and written letter and reference requirements.

“Currently, all cases for restoration of civil rights are reviewed on a case by case basis, and we consult with the prosecutor in the case,” wrote Kerri Richardson, Beshear’s spokeswoman, in an e-mail. “If a prosecutor objects, we give the application further consideration. Otherwise, the Governor routinely restores the right to vote and hold public office.”

The state did not have statistics available on the percentage of applications that get approved.

Many who work with felons say many of the applications never reach the governor and don’t get past the prosecutors. Messages into the commonwealth’s attorneys in Boone, Kenton and Campbell counties were not returned.

None of the 237 felons who have taken part during the past four years in the support group called Northern Kentucky Offender Re-entry Services run by Catholic Charities have had their rights restored, said Staci Arlinghaus, senior case manager for the group. Many get discouraged by the application process, she said.

“After going through the system and having some involvement with the government, a lot of them have developed an interest in voting,” Arlinghaus said. “And I think there’s a lot of fear form those in the government that there would be votes against them. And that’s not really what we see. We see the people we work with want to be involved, want to be able to vote, want to have a say so in the government to make a difference in a very positive way.”

Supporters of the bill think if you want to increase voter turnout, this is the way to do it.

“A vast portion of the population doesn’t seem to vote, which isn’t right,” said Paul Mohr, of Southgate, who volunteers with the the support group run by Catholic Charities.“But here you’ve got a segment of people who are ready and willing and want to vote. It would seem that could be a lot of votes that could be garnered that are wasted.”

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