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Ky. Lawmakers To Consider Restoring Voting Rights To People With Felonies

Kentucky Capitol

After Florida voters decided to restore voting rights to people who have completed sentences for felony convictions, Kentucky lawmakers will once again consider the issue during the next legislative session.

Kentucky is one of two states that permanently ban people with felony convictions from voting. It’s enshrined in the state constitution. The only way to restore voting rights is to appeal to the governor.

Sen. Morgan McGarvey, a Democrat from Louisville, said he will propose a constitutional amendment to allow voting rights to be restored to some people who have completed their felony sentences.

“When the constitution was written in Kentucky a lot of these crimes weren’t even felonies. We’ve made them that since then. So it’s not like the constitution intended to deprive people of their voice and their own community for the rest of their lives for a simple mistake,” McGarvey said.

McGarvey said the legislation, which hasn't been finalized yet, will likely still ban people who have committed voter fraud or crimes that involve violence or sexual assault.

According to the Sentencing Project, more than nine percent of Kentucky’s adult population can’t vote because of a felony conviction. That includes 26 percent of the state’s African-American population.

In 2015, outgoing Gov. Steve Beshear signed an executive order restoring voting rights to about 180,000 non-violent offenders who had completed their sentences.

Weeks later, Gov. Matt Bevin repealed the measure as one of his first acts in office, saying that the issue should be “addressed by the legislature and the will of the people.”

Until they lost control of the state House of Representatives in 2016, Democrats for years passed a constitutional amendment that would have restored voting rights to some people with felony convictions, only to have the legislation blocked in the Republican-led Senate.

The measure wasn’t considered in either the 2017 or 2018 legislative sessions, after Republicans took control of the House.

Andrew McNeill, the Kentucky director of Americans for Prosperity and a former official in the Bevin administration, said that the conservative advocacy organization is still considering whether to throw its support behind the effort.

“It’s a good time given the Florida outcome to move forward with evaluating what it is that Kentucky wants to do in terms of providing second chances to individuals who have made mistakes but repaid their debt to society,” McNeill said.

Constitutional amendments have to receive three-fifths majority votes in each chamber of the legislature to pass. The measures don’t need to be approved by the governor, but do need to be approved by a majority of Kentucky voters on Election Day in an even-numbered year.

Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives. Email Ryland at rbarton@lpm.org.