Northern Kentuckians debate restoring felons' right to vote

Scott Wartman
May 23, 2013
Kentucky Enquirer

Restoring the voting rights to felons ranked among the reforms some Northern Kentuckians would like to see Kentucky Secretary of State Alison Lundergan Grimes advocate for.

Dozens of Northern Kentuckians Wednesday night at Dixie Heights High School told Grimes what they like and dislike about Kentucky's voting laws. Grimes visited Northern Kentucky as part of five town halls she will conduct around the state this year to get input on voting laws.

Many wore stickers made by advocacy organization Kentuckians for the Commonwealth that read "I voted but 243,842 Kentuckians could not. Restore votign rights to former felons."

A majority of the 121 people polled online by the Scripps Howard Center for Civic Engagement at Northern Kentucky University -56 percent- "strongly" agreed with restoring voting rights to felons, while another 24 percent "somewhate" agreed.

But Kentucky remains one of four states that requires a gubernatorial pardon to restore voting rights.

That doesn't happen often, said Campbell County Clerk Jack Snodgrass, who only remembers three pardons of Campbell County residents by the governor in the last 10 years, which included former Newport Mayor Johnny "TV" Peluso.

Many at the forum told Grimes they think felons should get more of a chance to vote.

Rick Thies, a rehabilitiation counselor from Covington, said he's worked with former felons to apply for restoration of their voting rights and hasn't seen any of them get approved.

Thies questioned the logic of banning felons from voting.

"An 18-year-old kid smokes a join and is a felon for life?" Thies said. "Really?"

Virginia Johnson, a Kenton County Democrat, has worked with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth to lobby the General Assembly to pass legislation that would allow voters to decide whether to amend the constitution so felons could get automatic restoration of voting rights.

“They just won’t let it come before a vote in the Senate,” Johnson said. “We thought with (former Senate President) David Williams gone that would make a difference but it didn’t. I just don’t understand why people are against it.”

But others at the forum saw no reason for Kentucky law to change. If a felon doesn’t make the effort to apply to get their voting rights restored, then maybe they shouldn’t vote, said Don Wells, a resident of southern Campbell County.

“A lot of stuff has been said about the system needs to be changed, and I hear a lot about former felons,” Wells said. “You see, the trouble with that, if you committed a felony, you’re not a former felon, you are a felon.”

Some, however, think maybe it’s the criminal code, not the voting laws that should be looked at.

“We’ve got the laws structured so it’s too easy to become a felon, that the laws are written trying to amp up the penalties of crimes that didn’t historically match what the felony description was,” said Garth Kuhnhein, a Fort Mitchell resident and former president of the Northern Kentucky Tea Party.

Grimes said she thinks felons deserve a second chance to vote.

“Many believe, and I will tell you I am among them, that once you served your time, you should be allowed the opportunity to participate back in this process fully, but that’s not a decision left up to me. That’s one left up to our legislature,” Grimes said.

The crowd at Dixie Heights also discussed a variety of other election laws including early voting. Kentucky is one of 18 other states that does not allow early voting in person without an excuse.

“We have absentee voting in-person at the county clerks office that peole can go with an excuse and they can pass their vote ahead of time,” Phyllis Sparks, vice chairwoman of the Boone County Republican Party “In order to do this early voting, when people vote early, not just sometimes, but a lot of times, issues can come up right before Election Day where maybe a candidate is ineligible and that person has lost their vote. A lot of things can happen along the way.”

Others thought early voting would get more people engaged in the process. Early voters in Ohio and other states understand the risk of a candidate dropping out, said Col Owens, chairman of the Kenton County Democrats.

“It’s a matter of laws following our evolution,” Owens said.“People lead complicated lives. It’s very difficult for them, because they’re traveling, working, doing all these things to be able to show up. It should be made easy. It should be secure, but it should be made easy and convenient for people to do.”

Grimes will use the feedback from these forums around the state to make recommendations to the General Assembly.

“This is a forum and opportunity to gauge what the public’s opinion is out there,” Grimes said. “The forum that we had in Morgan County just recently went very well, and again, there’s excitement for the ability to help increase participation in our democracy, and getting their input is the first step in the process.”

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