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Felony Voter Restoration Takes A Step Forward In Kentucky

Prison cell bars
Prison cell bars

The state legislature would have the power to determine which felony offenses would qualify for voting rights restoration under a constitutional amendment approved by the Senate on Monday.

At present, the state constitution only allows a governor to restore the right to vote for those who have been convicted of a felony.

If the House and Gov. Matt Bevin also approve of the bill, a majority of Kentuckians would have to vote in favor of the measure in a referendum in November for the amendment to become law.

Senate President Robert Stivers, a Republican from Manchester and the amendment’s sponsor, said it would allow the legislature to be more flexible in the restoration process.

“Give us the authority, then we can define it," he said. "If we need to reel it in, we can reel it in. If we need to expand it, we can expand it."

Voting rights restoration bills have been proposed for well over a decade in the General Assembly. A proposal that passed the state House earlier this year would have automatically restored voting rights to Kentuckians who had finished serving time for certain nonviolent felonies.

Stivers called that method “backwards.”

“What we should do is get the authority first from the people, then come back and set up the parameters of what the General Assembly decides once given the authority,” Stivers said.

If approved, future state legislatures would be able to approve legislation tailoring which felonies would be eligible for voting rights restoration, as well as the terms of each procedure.

In his final weeks in office, former Gov. Steve Beshear issued an executive order making about 180,000 people felonies eligible to vote. Bevin rescinded that order as one of his first moves in office, saying the legislature should weigh in on the issue.

The Senate unanimously approved the bill on Monday.

Sen. Gerald Neal, a Democrat from Louisville who has carried the voting rights issue for years, called it a “positive step forward.”

“We should be taking a position that we should invite individuals back into society and not burden them with those things that push them away from society,” Neal said.

The bill now heads to the state House. Lawmakers have until April 13 to approve legislation.

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