Andy Beshear signs executive order allowing those with non-violent felony convictions to vote after completing their sentences
Governor Andy Beshear of Kentucky signed an executive order on Thursday that will allow people with non-violent felony convictions to vote once they complete their criminal sentences, a major voting rights victory that could allow up to 140,000 people to cast a ballot in the state.
Since 1891, the state has banned anyone with a felony from voting for life, unless their voting rights are restored by the governor, making Kentucky among the strictest jurisdictions when it comes to voting rights for felons in the country, and the world. Currently, about 10% of the states population (more than 312,000 people) is disenfranchised because of this policy, according to a 2016 estimate by the Sentencing Project.
Beshears order will automatically restore voting rights to those with non-violent felonies who complete their sentences. And it could affect the makeup of the states voting population: more than one in four African Americans in the state cant vote because of a felony conviction, according to the estimate.
Beshear said on Thursday that Kentuckians should be ashamed of the states high disenfranchisement rate.
I believe it is an injustice that their ability to fully rejoin society by casting a vote on election day is automatically denied regardless of the circumstances of their offense, he said before signing the executive order. When people vote, theyre showing theyre invested in our democracy, in our society and in their communities.
Back in 2015, his father, the former governor Steve Beshear, signed a similar executive order before he left office. But Governor Matt Bevin, a Republican, rescinded the order shortly after he took office thereafter. Bevin restored voting rights sparingly during his term during his first year, he did not restore voting rights to a single person.
This is a major step in the right direction. Kentucky has the worst disparate impact of any state on black voters, said Blair Bowie, an attorney at the Campaign Legal Center who has worked on felon disenfranchisement issues across the United States.
And it comes as many states are reconsidering those prohibitions, some of which emerged after the civil war as a way of restricting the vote of newly enfranchised African Americans. Florida voters repealed the states lifetime ban on felon voting in 2018 through amendment 4, a move that could allow up to 1.4 million voters to cast a ballot. Nevada, Colorado and Louisiana also recently approved legislation to allow people to vote once they leave prison, and New Jersey lawmakers are considering a similar law.
Many Democrats running for president have also endorsed allowing people to vote as soon as they are released from prison (Senator Bernie Sanders said earlier this year people should be able to vote while incarcerated).
Its part of whats now a two-decade-old movement to reconsider the policies which are antiquated, frequently had a racist history in their development and show the US as an extreme outlier in the democratic world, said Marc Mauer, the executive director of the Sentencing Project.
Only two other states, Iowa and Virginia, permanently ban people with felony convictions from voting like Kentucky. But in Virginia, the last two Democratic governors have moved aggressively to restore voting rights to people who complete their sentences. Iowas governor, Kim Reynolds, a Republican, recently said she wanted to ease the states lifetime ban.
Several advocates praised Beshears order, but expressed some disappointment that it did not go further to allow more Kentuckians to vote. Wed like to see no carve-outs. Particularly when youre talking about restoring rights to people who have entirely completed their sentence. The severity of their crime and convictions have already been taken into account at sentencing. A debt paid is a debt paid, Bowie said.
Savvy Shabazz, 44, wont be among the people affected by Thursdays order. He was convicted on possession and trafficking of a controlled substance charges in 2003 and served five and a half years in prison. But his parole doesnt expire until 2024, so he still cant vote.
Theres a lot of anxiety. There can be some slight depression, especially around this time of year when you can see all the commercials on your TV, he said. You cant have anything to do with what. It can be emotionally draining.
There also could be some lingering confusion about the new policy. Debra Graner, 68, said on Thursday she was unsure if Beshears executive order would affect her. She was convicted of arson in 2012, but wasnt sure if her crime would be classified as a violent or non-violent offense. Graner never went to prison, and served and completed her probation in 2017. She submitted an application to get her voting rights back to Bevin, but never heard back. Its like a slap in the face, she said of being denied her voting rights under Bevin.
Cassia Herron, the board president of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, said her group welcomed Beshears order, but would continue to push for a broader constitutional amendment that would automatically restore voting rights once people complete their sentence. Beshear voiced support for a constitutional amendment to automatically restore voting rights for non-violent felons on Thursday.
We say justice for all or justice for none, Herron said. But our democracy is built on everyones ability to participate. Its unfortunate that people who have done their time still are not able to participate fully in democracy.
Lawyers will also push ahead with an ongoing lawsuit, in federal court that challenges the governors ability to impose arbitrary criteria dealing with when felons can vote again, said Jon Sherman, a lawyer involved in the case. If the plaintiffs are successful in the suit, it could push the state to establish clear guidelines for restoring voting rights.
Meanwhile, Graner said she was still extremely excited about the order and was on her way to the state capitol to support Beshear. Its made me more hopeful, she said. Obviously, people take voting for granted when youve had it taken away, it takes part of your heart away. It takes part of your soul away. Its a right, its a privilege, its what helps make you a complete citizen, she said.