Voting rights action by Gov. Beshear a huge win for a healthy democracy

Kentuckians throughout the state are elated that Gov. Steve Beshear has taken steps to restore the voting rights for tens of thousands of state residents.

“Pretty awesome,” is how KFTC member Mantell Stevens reacted to the news. “To be able to vote means a lot to me. I always encourage people to vote, but now I can lead by example. I tell my nieces and nephews the importance of voting, but I could never vote myself.

“To be able to actually go and vote and to show them the importance of participating in democracy will mean so much to me,” added Stevens, who lost his right to vote in 2000 after spending 30 days in jail and three years on probation for a drug possession charge.

At a Tuesday press conference before a room packed with voting rights supporters, Beshear outlined a simplified process for Stevens and more than 100,000 other Kentuckians to immediately apply for and receive their voting rights back.

“The right to vote and the right to hold office are fundamental foundations of our democracy. Yet in Kentucky it is estimated that we deny those rights to an estimated 180,000 adults,” Beshear said. “Why? Simply because at some point in their lives they have been in trouble with the law. We ignore the fact that they have paid for their crimes and served out their sentences.

“This disenfranchisement makes no sense. It makes no sense because it dilutes the energy of democracy, which functions only if all classes and categories of people have a voice, not just a privileged powerful few … It makes no sense because it violates the principles of fairness."

Beshear said he was signing an executive order instituting a new policy that automatically restores voting rights for felons provided they meet three criteria. Those criteria are they the individual has fulfilled their sentence, has no pending criminal charges and was not convicted of a violent, sexual bribery or treason offense.

Once the Department of Corrections makes the determination that the former felon meets those criteria they will receive a certificate of restoration of civil rights and may register to vote or run for public office

This is a huge victory for many others like Tayna Fogle who have organized and worked for a decade for voting rights restoration for former felons. Fogle, Stevens and other KFTC members and allies met with the governor in the summer and asked him to take executive action to restore voting rights to former felons.

"The governor's announcement today is the result of a decade of work by organizations and political leaders who came together in unity. It took a lot of labor, education, outreach, fundraising and grassroots efforts by Kentuckians For The Commonwealth and other groups,” said Fogle. "This is about making sure that everyone in our communities has a say in the decisions affecting their lives. It's about making sure that my neighbors have a say in who is on our school board, who is serving in local offices that affect our community."

Studies by the Kentucky League of Women Voters and the Sentencing Project estimate that there are 180,000 Kentuckians who have completed their felony sentences and are not able to vote. That’s about one in 17 Kentuckians of voting age and one in four African Americans – one of the highest rates in the nation.

Beshear’s order will affect an estimated 140,000 former felons, plus an additional 30,000 who have not yet completed their sentences, according to Brennan Center estimates.

Former felons not covered under Beshear’s order may still apply for an individual pardon.

Kentucky is one of only four states that permanently disenfranchise people convicted of a felony. Up to now, only those who received an individual pardon from the governor had their rights restored.

"Restoration of my voting rights was key to feeling like I was a part of society again,” added Jason Smith of Elizabethtown, one of a small number of Kentuckians who have received one of those gubernatorial pardons. “I felt like I was sentenced to a civil purgatory, with a scarlet letter around my neck. Being able to get my voting rights back allowed me to get jobs I couldn't before, and even allowed me to become a chaperone at my child's field trip to Frankfort."

"Getting your voting rights back is so important,” said Teddi Smith Robillard of Lexington. “As long as you are denied voting rights, you are still serving your sentence. And that's not right."

Proponents of a healthy democracy have, for nearly 10 years, pushed legislation that would automatically restore voting rights. Since 2007, each year those bills have been approved by the Kentucky House by large bipartisan margins only to be killed by Senate leaders. That prompted the request to Beshear to take executive action.

“Today is a wonderful day. This is so badly needed,” said former state Rep. Jesse Crenshaw who for years was the chief proponent of the legislation to change the state constitution to make voting rights restoration automatic. “What we have today is democracy at its best.”

KFTC members say they will continue to push for legislation that will allow the action Beshear took to become a permanent part of Kentucky’s constitution.

Added Stevens, “Sometimes it takes a lifetime to see change, but to see something like this manifest in my lifetime is amazing. This action and the work we did to get here is a part of Kentucky history. We are a part of Kentucky history. And, that is pretty awesome.”

Added Fogle, "We have been at this a long time. Today's announcement shows that change is possible if we hang in there, together, and never give up."

Officials said the application for civil rights restoration will be available on the Department of Corrections website by Tuesday afternoon.

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