In the last weeks of his term, Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear’s (D) latest executive order has the potential to have a lasting impact on voting rights in Kentucky for years to come. Gov. Beshear called to automatically restore the voting rights of over 170,000 non-violent ex-felons who have completed their sentences. Prior to this, former convicted felons in the state were permanently barred from voting as Kentucky was one of three states in the United States that imposes a strict lifetime voting ban on felons unless they get a special exemption from the governor.
As Gov. Beshear said in a statement, “The right to vote is one of the most intrinsically American privileges, and thousands of Kentuckians are living, working and paying taxes in the state but are denied this basic right. Once an individual has served his or her time and paid all restitution, society expects them to reintegrate into their communities and become law-abiding and productive citizens. A key part of that transition is the right to vote.”
While the executive order does not restore the voting rights of all ex-felons in Kentucky—which the Brennan Center for Justice estimates is around 220,000—by excluding those who have been convicted or violent crimes, sex crimes, bribery, and treason, the vast majority of convicted felons will now be granted full voting rights.
This marks an important stride for equal voting rights in Kentucky and across the nation, highlighting the discussion around recidivism and the re-entry of people who have committed felonies into society. Additionally, measures such as these draw attention to the disparities in voter disenfranchisement for ex-felons, especially people of color. The Sentencing Project reports that nationally 5.85 million Americans cannot vote due to felon-disenfranchisement laws, and 2.2 million of those are people of color.
“The old system is unfair and counterproductive. We need to be smarter about our criminal-justice system,” the Governor said. “Research shows that ex-felons who vote are less likely to commit crimes and [more likely] to be productive members of society.”
While the executive order could be over-turned by Gov. Beshear’s successor Matt Bevin (R), both Bevin and Kentucky Senator Rand Paul have previously vouched their support for the restoration of voting rights. As the nation begins to re-think the relationship between criminal justice reform and prisoner re-entry, removing restrictions and restoring voting rights for felons is an important move towards citizen engagement in Kentucky and beyond.