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Felon Voting Rights Issue in Kentucky Isn't Completely Settled

Prison cell bars
Prison cell bars

Michael Hiser started taking drugs when he was 8 and was only able to sober up while serving time for a felony.

While in prison, he decided he wanted to vote — an act prohibited for felons in Kentucky.

“Something just clicked that I needed to be civic-ly minded, that I was a part of this community," he said. "And voting is a huge part of that.”

Hiser completed his parole for drug crimes in 2012 after a 25-year struggle with addiction. “And for me, not to have the ability to vote meant that I really wasn’t part of the community."

Thanks to an executive order issued Tuesday by outgoing Gov. Steve Beshear, Hiser expects he'll be able to cast ballots in upcoming elections.

Beshear's executive order restoring voting rights to 180,000 non-violent felons in Kentucky was monumental for the years-long push for supporters of the issue. But the legislative battle over felon voting rights isn't over.

The Democrat-led state House has repeatedly approved legislation to restore voting rights to non-violent felons. The Republican-led Senate has declined to send those bills to the governor, though in 2013 the Senate passed a bill that would restore voting rights after a five-year waiting period.

Fortified by incoming Republican Gov. Matt Bevin, GOP leaders from both legislative chambers called out Beshear’s order as an overreach of executive authority. Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, a Georgetown Republican, argued that while Beshear is allowed to issue individual pardons, he can’t do so to a whole class of individuals.

“I think that’s a really broad and incorrect interpretation of the law and constitution,” Thayer said.

A provision in Kentucky’s constitution strips felons of their voting rights, though the governor’s office also has the authority to restore those rights by executive pardon.

Thayer said he’s going to urge Bevin “to closely review” Beshear’s executive order to see whether it is constitutional.

“Nobody’s taking a look at each individual case, which is normally what happens when someone requests to have their voting rights restored,” Thayer said, adding that voting rights should be granted only after a waiting period in order to incentivize good behavior.

Beshear’s order applies to those with felony convictions who didn’t commit violent crimes, sex crimes, bribery or treason, and don’t have any pending criminal charges. Once they complete their time behind bars, finish their probation or pay court-mandated restitution in full, their voting rights will be automatically restored.

Joshua Douglas, a law professor at the University of Kentucky, said Beshear’s executive order will likely pass legal muster.

“I don’t see anything in the Kentucky constitution that says the governor can’t do it wholesale as opposed to one by one,” Douglas said.

But even if Beshear’s order is legal, that doesn’t mean Bevin couldn't rescind it. Douglas said the next question is whether those who get their voting rights restored could have them taken away again.

Probably not, he said.

“If someone takes advantage of this right now and gets an order from the Department of Corrections that their voting rights are restored, I don’t know that Matt Bevin could take that individual person’s voting rights away,” Douglas said.

After Beshear’s executive order, only Florida and Iowa have polices that permanently prohibit felons from voting.

State Rep. Darryl Owens, a Louisville Democrat, has been a leading proponent of restoring felon voting rights. On Tuesday, he said the legislature needs to tackle the felon voting rights issue and remove it from the "whims of the governor.”

House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover, a Jamestown Republican and a supporter of voting rights restoration, said the matter should be taken up by the General Assembly. He also questioned the validity of Beshear's order.

“It should be the role of the legislature, not one person, which should address these issues through legislative debate," Hoover said.

Governor-elect Bevin has voiced support for the restoration of voting rights for non-violent felons. On Tuesday, his spokeswoman said Bevin was reviewing Beshear's order.

Hiser, a 45-year-old Bullitt County resident,  said he was already applying to have his voting rights restored.

“Up until this point, I’ve only been a citizen in transition; I’ve only been able to pay taxes," he said. "To me, it’s taxation without representation."

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