KFTC members traveled to Nashville on May 8th to participate in the National Commission on Voting Rights’ regional hearing that was organized by the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. Tayna Fogle was called as an expert witness on the panel to discuss disenfranchisement of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals, while Teddi Smith-Robillard, Bonifacio Aleman, and Honey Dozier all attended to give public testimony as directly effected individuals. The panel lasted for four hours and covered a range of issues around voting rights, including election administration, dilution of minority power and redistricting, equal access to the political process, the impact of voter ID, and of course felony disenfranchisement. The regional hearing consisted of testimony from Kentucky, Tennessee, West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arkansas.
Members traveled to Nashville and sat for hours through the hearing to share their personal stories. “I feel it is necessary to reveal the discrepancies in the process to restore felons' civil rights to the rest of the nation,” Honey Dozer of KFTC and Jobs with Justice said after sharing her personal experience. Bonifacio Aleman, also with KFTC and Jobs with Justice, made it clear to the panel why he attended the hearing by saying, “Why do I care about voting? Because that is where our power lies.” And, Teddi Smith-Robillard shared her personal story and also challenged everyone to take action: “We need to take this issue to the streets because people aren’t listening.”
The Saturday before the Kentucky primary election voter registration deadline, Jefferson County Chapter of KFTC organized Bike the Vote, a pop-up voter registration drive in West Louisville. Eighteen people volunteered to register voters, some riding bikes between the four pop-up locations; two grocery stores and two parks. After four hours and eight miles of biking, the group registered 40 voters. Chapter members registered a total of 84 voters during the week of April 14.
Yesterday, April 15, was the final day of the 2014 regular session of the Kentucky General Assembly. Supporters of legislation to allow for the automatic restoration of voting rights for most former felons once they have completed their sentence (House Bill 70) gave the Kentucky Senate yet another chance to pass this meaningful legislation.
Our community lost a strong leader the 7th of this month with the passing of April Browning. Her strong voice for justice and equality could be heard on many fronts. In about every speech April gave it often started out with, "First and foremost, I'm a mom." She said in one interview, "My son Elijah . . . makes every day worth living and special . . . That's the first and most important thing you need to know about me." She went on to explain, "But after that, it's really important to me to take initiative to make my community a better place - for Elijah and everyone else."
April was a board member of Central Kentucky Council for Peace and Justice. She was the inspiration and one of the founders of Occupy Lexington in 2011. Her voice was heard at the rallies organized by Kentuckians Against the War On Women. She was a spokesperson around the restoration of voting rights for former felons in Kentucky and for Kentuckians For The Commonwealth.
April was born in Flint, Michigan, but grew up in Central Kentucky. She understood first hand the struggle of low-income parents in Kentucky. She understood first hand being denied rights as a former felon for a mistake long past paid for. She understood the struggle of the 99% against the 1%.
In her words, "I am politically active and I feel that my voice as well as thousands of other Kentuckians' voices should be heard. ... I'm fighting for progress across the board and this fight is personal."
We mourn the loss of her leadership and activism, but her spirit will remain with us as the struggle continues.
One of the most powerful ways our members spoke out this legislative session was in prayer. Pastor Anthony Everett from Nia Community of Faith in Lexington led three Witnessing Wednesday prayer vigils in the lobby of the Senate offices to lift up HB70 and the issue of restoring voting rights to former felons once they served their time. The vigils took place at 11:30 a.m. on March 12th, 19th, and 26th and included prayer, song, testimony, and information about the issue. More than 40 people gathered at the last vigil, including Senators Reggie Thomas, Alice Forgy-Kerr, and Gerald Neal, highlighting the bi-partisan support for this issue. The vigils brought together advocates from across the state, including members of KFTC, The Council of Churches, Fairness, Kentucky Student Environmental Coalition, faith leaders from various denominations and faith traditions, and more. People across the state and nation were invited to pray and could join the vigil on livestream.
Earlier this month the Jefferson County Chapter of KFTC partnered with Network Center for Community Change (NC3) to host a Legislative Call-in Party focused on House Bill 70, the bill that seeks to restore voting rights to former felons who have paid their debt to society. KFTC members joined NC3 members at their office to call the Legislative Message Line (1-800-372-7181) and leave messages for their senators and all senators asking them to recede to the House version of HB70. Members also took to social media to encourage their friends and family to do their part to support HB 70.
Starting at 11:30 EDT, members of the Nia Community of Faith led by Pastor Anthony Everett will be leading a prayer vigil in support of House Bill 70, our restoration of voting rights amendment, in the annex offices of the Senate in Frankfort. We will be streaming live video from the vigil on this page. So please join us, and let us know what you think in our comments.
Under the guise of hearing a bill to restore voting rights to some offenders, the Kentucky Senate gutted it and replaced it with a harshly restrictive measure that Raoul Cunningham, president of the Louisville NAACP, said can only be described as a voter suppression bill.
In its 8th year in the Kentucky legislature, House Bill 70 passed the Kentucky Senate for the first time on February 19. The bill, which would restore voting rights to most former felons, passed with a committee substitute that would require a five-year waiting period.
In its original form, House Bill 70 – passed by the House on January 16 by a bipartisan vote of 82-12 – would place on the statewide ballot a constitutional amendment that would automatically restore voting rights to non-violent felons once they’ve served their full sentence, including probation and parole. The Senate version would add a five-year waiting period beyond probation and parole. The changes would also exclude from automatic restoration anyone convicted of any felony sex crime and anyone with multiple convictions, cutting in half the number of former felons who would benefit from House Bill 70. (The House version of the bill already excluded those convicted of intentional killing, rape, sodomy and sex crimes involving children, as well as treason and bribery in an election.)
Each year since 2005, the voting rights bill has passed the House only to die in the Senate without a vote.
"God is a forgiving God who does not make you wait five years for forgiveness." - Sen. Gerald Neal
The bill with committee substitute passed unanimously out of the Senate State and Local Government Committee and a few hours later went to the Senate floor, where it passed 34 to 4.
Because of the changes to the bill, it will pass back to the House, where the House can either accept it with the changes or negotiate a compromise.
Senators Gerald Neal and Reginald Thomas spoke passionately on the Senate floor about the need to pass HB 70 without the committee substitute.
“We’re going to create a whole new category of punishment,” said Neal, who sponsored a companion bill in the Senate. He explained that some felons could be “on paper” for 10 years and still have to wait another five before they can vote.
"God is a forgiving God who does not make you wait five years for forgiveness," Neal said.
“This country has never compromised, Madam President, when it comes to the issue of liberty,” said Thomas. He went on to say, “This bill is not a compromise. … It’s a denial of what’s fundamental in our society, which is the right to vote.”
Other senators said they would vote for the bill with the changes because they wanted to see the bill move forward. A few, including senators Robin Webb and Alice Forgy Kerr, said they hoped the bill would come back to the Senate from the House in its original form – without the committee substitute.
Kerr referred to the five-year waiting period as a “hope buster.”
“I really feel like the God I serve is a God of second chances,” said Kerr. “And I feel like voting is a right, voting is a privilege, but voting is not just for the privileged few.”
"We are a forgiving people. We are a forgiving society. And Lord help us if we ever change from being that way." -Rep. Jeff Hoover
Webb said voting allows people to invest in their communities. “I believe that individuals will do better if they’re invested where they live and where they work. ... And I think democracy requires that.”
Earlier in the day, in a one-hour committee hearing that featured testimony by U.S. Senator Rand Paul in favor of restoration of voting rights, several lawmakers and others urged passage of the bill without the committee substitute.
“The theory behind House Bill 70 is that you want to show the person that they are being welcomed back to society,” said Rep. Jesse Crenshaw, long-time sponsor of House Bill 70. “The committee substitute does the opposite of that.”
“We find, Mr. Chairman, the Senate substitute not to be a bill that will restore rights for felons. But we find that to be a blueprint for suppression of felon voting rights,” said Raoul Cunningham, president of the Louisville NAACP.
Rep. Jeff Hoover, co-sponsor of House Bill 70 with Crenshaw, said restoring voting rights after completion of a sentence is a matter of fairness.
“We are a forgiving people. We are a forgiving society,” Hoover said. “And Lord help us if we ever change from being that way.”
In his remarks, Paul avoided taking sides on the committee substitute, but spoke strongly in favor of restoring voting rights, focusing particularly on the high number of incarcerations for nonviolent drug crimes and the disproportionate impact on people of color.
Many drug crimes are committed in youth by kids “white, black and brown,” but the prison population is disproportionately made up of people of color, Paul said.
“Something’s gone wrong in the war on drugs. … There has become a racial outcome in who’s incarcerated in our country,” Paul said. He added that sentences are often too harsh.
“Most of us believe in redemption,” Paul said. “Most of us believe in a second chance.”