Voting is a fundamental right and a cornerstone of democracy. Kentucky is one of only two states in the country that permanently disenfranchises all individuals with felony convictions, barring over 180,000 individuals from voting—two-thirds of whom have fully served their sentence. One in every 17 adults is ineligible to vote. The rate of disenfranchisement among African-American’s in Kentucky is the nation’s second highest. One in four African-American adults is barred from voting, leaving many communities with severely limited political power.
In 2005, the ACLU of Kentucky, along with the NAACP and Kentuckians For The Commonwealth and many others formed the Restoration of Voting Rights Coalition (ROVRC) to demand change.
The solution to Kentucky’s restrictive voting restoration policy is an amendment to Kentucky’s Constitution that will remove discretionary power from the Governor and provide automatic restoration after the complete fulfillment of all sentencing requirements. This can only be realized when the state legislature approves a resolution to be placed on a statewide ballot which calls for a change in the state constitution.
According to a study done by the University of Kentucky Survey Research Center in the summer of 2006, a significant majority of Kentuckians favor an amendment to the Kentucky Constitution that automatically restores the right to vote to a convicted felon who has completed his or her sentence.
Kentucky Disenfranchisement Policy
Kentucky permanently bars all individuals with a felony conviction from voting. As outlined in section 145 of the Kentucky Constitution, voting rights may only be restored through an executive pardon by the Governor - a complicated and discretionary process. Individuals with misdemeanor convictions only lose the right to vote while incarcerated.
Who is disenfranchised in Kentucky?
An estimated 186,348 people with felony convictions are barred from voting in Kentucky. Approximately 69% of disenfranchised Kentuckians have fully completed their sentence. Of the remaining disenfranchised population, 16% is on probation, 5% is on parole and only 10% of the disenfranchised population is in prison or jail. Like many of us, these individuals live, work, pay taxes, raise families and attend schools in their communities.
Kentucky has the second highest African-American disenfranchisement rate in the country, disenfranchising nearly one in four African-American Kentuckians. African-Americans comprise only 6.6% of the state’s voting age population, yet represent 23.7% of the disenfranchised population. This rate is four times the statewide disenfranchisement rate and nearly three times the national African-American disenfranchisement rate.
Neighboring states Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois all automatically enfranchise citizens upon release from incarceration. West Virginia and Missouri automatically restore the right to vote to all individuals with felony convictions upon full completion of sentence. These enfranchisement practices have not compromised the integrity of elections or public safety in these states.
Voting and Public Safety
Felony disenfranchisement runs counter to the goal of public safety. Restricting voting rights does not prevent crime, nor does it provide compensation to victims. In fact, disenfranchising persons after release from prison is antithetical to the reentry process and harmful to long-term prospects for sustainable reintegration of formerly incarcerated individuals into society. Research finds a link between voting participation and re-offense; people who voted after release from supervision were half as likely to be re-arrested as those who did not vote. Similar effects were found among people with a prior arrest; 27% of non-voters were re-arrested, compared to 12% of people who had voted.
Far from making streets safer, felony disenfranchisement may be detrimental to public safety. Voting demonstrates an individual’s commitment to the institutions of American democracy. The irony of felony disenfranchisement is that the very behavior that society strives to encourage – the commitment to the larger social and political collective – is undermined by a policy that requires people who desire to engage in that behavior to relinquish the right to vote.
What is HB 70?
HB70, the Restoration of Voting Rights Act, would automatically restore voting rights to Kentuckians with felony convictions who have fully completed their sentences. The bill encourages civic participation, promotes democracy, and welcomes our sons and daughters back into our communities.
Why is HB 70 important?
Voting is a hallmark of democracy. When people are released from prison and have served all terms of probation and parole, they deserve a second chance to work, raise families and vote. Taxpaying citizens deserve a say in their government, and voting is an essential part of reassuming the duties of full citizenship. Restoring the right to vote strengthens our democracy.
- Kentucky’s current process for restoring civil rights is inefficient and wastes tax dollars. State employees must process the applications for rights restorations, an unnecessary burden to taxpayers in light of the fiscal crisis in our state.
- Restoring voting rights to people with felony convictions increases public safety. People who vote are less likely to be re-arrested than those who do not vote.
- A significant majority of Kentuckians support an amendment along the lines of HB 70. According to a 2006 survey conducted by the UK Survey Research Center, the majority (56%) of Kentuckians support automatic voting rights restoration for people who have completed their sentences.
- Voting rights should not depend upon the arbitrary decisions of politicians, but should automatically be given back to individuals after they have served their sentences.
- Kentucky’s law is out of step with regional, national and international norms. Kentucky and Virginia are the last two states where all people with felony convictions are permanently disenfranchised; in the last decade, the number of states with permanent disenfranchisement policies has gone from ten to two. Further, the United States is the only democratic nation that currently disenfranchises large numbers of non-incarcerated individuals. Kentucky is an outlier on the national and international scene, and should reform its outdated laws to reflect the movement towards greater enfranchisement and a stronger democracy.
How can Kentucky’s felony disenfranchisement policy be changed?
Reforming Kentucky’s felony disenfranchisement policy requires passage of a resolution in both the House and the Senate by a three-fifths majority to amend the state constitution, followed by a vote of the general public. By advocating for the passage of HB 70 in 2010, you can help promote a strong democracy in Kentucky.