Felons Getting Closer to Voting in KY

Scott Wartman
September 15, 2014
Cincinnati Enquirer

Felons won't let up on state lawmakers in Kentucky until they get the right to vote.

After getting a powerful ally in U.S. Sen. Rand Paul this year, the supporters of the automatic restoration of voting rights for most felons hope the next session of the Kentucky General Assembly in January will give felons the same rights they have in most other states.

Already, three bills, two by Democrats and one by a Republican, have been filed that would automatically restore upon completion of the sentence and probation the voting rights for felons not convicted of sex offenses, homicide, treason and bribery. All three are Constitutional amendments that require the support of 60 percent of legislators and ratification by voters.

Supporters of the voting rights bill believe it will help transition reformed criminals back into society. Backers believe the progress made last session bodes well for the next year. Social justice group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth estimate there are 180,000 felons out of prison in the state.

Kentucky is one of only four states that requires a pardon from the governor for a felon to vote again. In 38 states, most felons automatically get their rights restored upon completion of their sentences, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In the meantime, supporters of felon suffrage say they're meeting with the governor in a month asking for a blanket pardon for all of the state's nonviolent felons. Michael Hiser, a Bullitt County resident released from prison seven years ago after serving time for drug and theft charges, has devoted his time to this cause. When asked, Beshear's office didn't confirm whether he's considering a blanket pardon.

"I am real hopeful we can come to some kind of agreement this year," Hiser said . "My strategy will be to get in the face of every single person I can and make it as public as it needs to be, lobby as much as we can lobby."

For felons, it's about rehabilitation. And the more you can help convicts re-adjust back into society, the better it is for everyone else, Hiser said

"The impact is that you would have a stake in the game, that we're part of something," Hiser said. "When you vote, all of a sudden you get civic minded."

When Kentucky's junior senator and possible 2016 presidential candidate Paul advocated for a felon voting bill before a state Senate committee last February, felon suffrage supporters saw this as a coup. For more than 10 years, a bill to give felons the automatic right to vote has died in the General Assembly. The Democratic-controlled House has passed the bill for several years only to see it stalled in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Paul's support, however, wasn't enough. The Republican-controlled Senate heavily amended the bill put in a five year waiting period and would still require a gubernatorial pardon for anyone with multiple felonies.

"A five-year waiting period is reasonable to give an individual time to re-immerse themselves in society and to prove to the criminal justice system that they can be good citizens and not commit another crime," said Senate Majority Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, at the time.

But while the bill died, supporters saw it as progress that it was even called for debate. This was the first time it had ever been called for even a debate in the Republican-controlled Senate.

Thayer could not be reached for comment on whether his positioned softened and whether it stands a better chance next time.

Some supporters see Paul's appearance in favor of the felon voting bill as political theater. Paul has tried to expand the GOP base for a possible presidential run by taking up the cause of issues popular with minority communities, such as this one. Sen. Gerald Neal, D-Louisville, has filed one of the three felon voting bills and doesn't know whether it can get through the Senate.

"It is a little disingenuous to give Rand Paul any credit on this," Neal said. "The proof is in the pudding. Nothing happened."

While Senate Republicans have opposed automatically restoring the voting rights of felons, other Republicans joined the effort.

Republican House Minority Floor Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, introduced both a bill last session and one of the bills for the next session that would restore felon voting rights for most felons.

Both Democrats and Republicans have supported the bill in the House, where it has passed the last several years. If Republicans take control of the House and Hoover becomes Speaker, it will still pass, he said.

"I voted for it every single time," Hoover said. "I think it's the fair thing and the right thing to do. I believe when a person has completed their sentence, their punishment that has been handed down to the court, the right thing to do is restore their right to vote."

Kentucky's Democratic governor, Steve Beshear, has supported giving felons the right to vote. Since taking office in 2008, he stopped requiring people write letters with references asking for the restoration of their rights. He's restored the voting rights for 8,400 felons. His predecessor, Republican Ernie Fletcher, restored the rights of 1,098 people during his entire four years in office.

His predecessor, Fletcher, restored the rights of 1,098 people during his entire four years in office.

"Gov. Beshear has consistently supported measures that would allow for the automatic restoration of rights to vote and hold office for certain felons, except those convicted of violent crimes or sex crimes, who have completed their sentences," Beshear's spokeswoman Kerri Richardson said in a statement.

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