FRANKFORT – Last November, nearly two-thirds of Florida’s voters approved a constitutional amendment that automatically restores voting rights to most felons after they complete their sentence. It’s a move that many think is long overdue here in Kentucky, since we’re now just one of two states – Iowa is the other – that still enforces a broad lifetime voting ban in these cases.
There have been many attempts over the years to take us off that short list. Although the Kentucky House has not voted on this issue since 2016, the chamber used to routinely approve a constitutional amendment similar to Florida’s with wide, bipartisan majorities, only to see it fail in the Senate.
Many of my colleagues in the House and I will try again during this year’s legislative session when we return to the Capitol on Feb. 5th. While constitutional amendments can only be put before voters in even-numbered years, there is no doubt that having the General Assembly approve this now would send a positive message to many who have paid their debt to society but still do not have a voice on Election Day.
A poll of more than 600 Kentuckians late last year indicates it would pass easily if placed on the ballot in 2020, with two-thirds – about the same percentage as in Florida – saying they support the concept.
For the Sunshine State, 1.4 million people with a felony record are now eligible to register to vote, which the Wall St. Journal says is the single-largest expansion of potential voters since the United States lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 in 1971.
In Kentucky, it’s estimated that there are more than 312,000 people with a felony record, and nearly 80 percent of those have completed all aspects of their punishment, including probation and parole.
No group of Kentuckians in this category is more affected than African-Americans, whose disenfranchisement rate is three-and-a-half times the national average, making it the highest among the 50 states.
Our state constitution does allow those with a felony record to petition the governor for a restoration of voting rights, but the numbers of those approved pale against the overall total. There was a brief moment several years ago when this appeared to be resolved, but Governor Beshear’s executive order in Nov. 2015 to broadly restore voting rights to most non-violent felons was rescinded by newly elected Governor Bevin less than a month later.
There have been several versions of the proposed constitutional amendment filed this year in the House and Senate, but they all generally follow the same two guidelines: Registering to vote could only take place after all aspects of a sentence are complete, and those guilty of especially violent or sexually related crimes or bribery in an election would not be eligible. They would still have to successfully petition the governor before being allowed to register to vote.
As we wait to see the outcome of this legislation, there are several other bills filed this year that also seek to make the criminal-justice system fairer.
House Bill 155, for example, would lower the felony expungement fee from $500 to $200, making it much easier for many to afford, and it would also expand the number of Class D felonies that could be expunged.
This process, which the General Assembly first approved in 2016, has already helped many Kentuckians get their lives back on track, and a related piece of legislation, House Bill 90, builds on this work by not requiring job applicants to disclose prior criminal history on initial job applications.
Another area that is gaining bipartisan support is bail reform. Many citizens with limited incomes are spending weeks if not months behind bars awaiting trial while others who can afford bail are able to stay at home.
Many think it is time to see if a better system can be devised, especially when considering that three-fourths of our jails exceed capacity and our prisons are quickly running out of space as well. This concept is backed by groups ranging from civil rights advocates to the Kentucky Chamber of Commerce.
As always, but especially with the bulk of the 2019 legislative session still in front of us, I would like to know your thoughts on these and other issues affecting Kentucky. You can always email me at Rick.Rand@lrc.ky.gov, and the toll-free message line – which is open during normal business hours each weekday – is 1-800-372-7181. If you have a hearing impairment, the number is 1-800-896-0305.
The legislature’s website, meanwhile, can be found online at www.lrc.ky.gov.
I hope to hear from you soon.