A Brief Kentucky Voting Rights History

Kentucky has had four Constitutions and otherwise a long history of shifting voter enfranchisement laws over our 217-year history - and the history of voter enfranchisement isn't over yet. 

The Commonwealth of Kentucky used to be Kentucky County, Virginia and we inherited a lot of the Virginia Constitution when we established our statehood and first constitution in 1792.

- In the first KY Constitution, our voting rights laws were progressive by the standards of the time.  Free men 21 or older could vote, with no stipulation that voters had to own land or other property.  To vote, you also had to have lived two years within the country and one within the state. 

- Kentucky's second constitution, adopted in 1799, took a sizable step back, disenfranchising free "negroes, mulattos and Indians."  The new constitution also limited voting to citizens, excluding resident aliens.

- In 1838, Kentucky became one of the first states that allow women to vote in school board elections – nearly 80 years before women won the universal right to vote across the US. 

- Kentucky's third constitution was adopted in 1850, with few substantial changes to voting rights.  Instead of taking away votes from specific racial minorities, it specified being "white" is a prerequisite for voting.

- Starting in 1851, Kentucky constitutionally disenfranchised all people convicted of a felony for the rest of their lives.  The Kentucky legislature had the power to disenfranchise as punishment prior to this change, but used it rarely.

- In 1869, the 15th Amendment to the US Constitution was adopted.  African Americans men could now vote, at least according to the Constitution. 

This also marked the beginnings of Jim Crow laws (1876-1965) used throughout the South to reduce the black vote.  Stipulations like grandfather clauses, literacy tests, and poll taxes were thinly veiled and selectively enforced measures to keep African Americans from the polls. 

Criminal laws were also re-written throughout the South during this time to impose harsher sentences for those crimes that tended to be committed by blacks than crimes that tended to be committed by whites.  Coupled with growing felony disenfranchisement laws, this had a large impact on the electorate. 

- In 1888, Kentucky became one of the first states to use an Australian ballot, a system still in use today that allows for voting in private and decreases the chances of votes being bought or of voters being coerced to vote a certain way.

- The fourth and final Kentucky Constitution was adopted in 1891.  Though heavily modified since, this in the constitution we use today, 118 years after its ratification. It reduced the residency requirements, making it easier for people to move to Kentucky and participate in the Democracy sooner. 

- In 1920, women won the right to vote through the 19th Amendment to the US Constitution. 

- The Indian Citizenship Act of 1924 declared all non-citizen Indians born within the US to be citizens, giving them the right to vote.

- In 1955, 18-20 year-olds were enfranchised in Kentucky – 16 years before the 26th Amendment granted voting rights to that same age group in other states. 

It's important to remember that at every step in our voting rights history, there were grassroots movements to expand the democracy.  None of it happened automatically and there were countless heroes who made it all possible. 

000_0007.JPGThe next chapter in Kentucky's voting rights history is our campaign to restore voting rights to 186,000 people in Kentucky once they've completed felony sentences and served their debt to society. 

At the moment, Kentucky is one of just two states in the US that disenfranchise all former felons even after they've served their debt to society (unless they seek out and receive a pardon from the governor), a distinction we share only with our sister-commonwealth of Virginia. 

One in four African Americans in Kentucky is presently disenfranchised – an impediment to our democracy every bit as substantial as poll taxes or literacy tests. 

Together, we can make history again and expand our democracy in 2010 – and former felons are leading the way.

Update: Since the publication of this post, we've become less clear as to whether Kentucky's initial Constitution disenfranchised former felons. Our read of the first constitution leads us to believe that it did disenfranchise people convicted of a felony, but there is room for interpretation and the few historians that focus on voting rights indicate that the disenfranchisement happened later (as indicated above).

Also, Kentcky may be one of three states that permanently disenfranchise people with a felony conviction. The landscape of voter restrictions and suppression is growing and changing. The Brennan Center for Justice does a good job a tracking this; their research can be found HERE and HERE.

 

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