by Richard Spoor, Contributor
The restoration of felon voting rights has slowly come to the Blue Grass state. Section 145 of the Kentucky Constitution excludes those who have been convicted of a felony, bribery in an election, or treason from voting. Felons, regardless of the variety of crime committed, are prevented from voting for life and the only way they can reestablish their voting rights is by applying to the governor. Kentucky’s felons are “socially dead” having basic rights permanently withheld, most notably the right to vote. However, there is a movement in Kentucky to change these somewhat draconian laws. Bills amending the constitution’s section 145, while unsuccessful to date, have been introduced and have gained popularity. Additionally, popular politicians have thrown their weight behind the movement. It is entirely conceivable, if not probable, that Section 145 will be amended in the near future.
HCS HB 70 stands as the most significant attempt at restoring felons’ voting rights in Kentucky. The bill, first introduced in 2007, popular in Kentucky’s House of Representatives, This bill sought to amend Kentucky’s Constitution, in particularly Section 145, to allow felons to automatically regain their voting privileges after completing their sentences. Felons convicted of murder, or a sex crime, would be exempted from regaining their voting rights. HB 70, despite being popular in the House, died in Kentucky’s Senate. This bill is introduced and passes the House annually, yet it continually dies in the Senate. However, change may be coming.
United States Senator Rand Paul is very popular in his home state of Kentucky. Recently, Paul has spoken on the issue, voicing strong support for the restoration of felons’ voting rights as well as other rights. Paul’s position on felon rights is connected to his position on marijuana legalization and his criticism of the “War on Drugs”. In fact, the example Senator Paul used to illustrate his position on felon voting was drawn from a drug case. Senator Paul spoke of a man who was convicted of a felony after growing marijuana plants in college and thereby lost his right to vote.
The American Civil Liberties Union has likewise placed its support behind the House’s efforts to amend the State’s Constitution. The ACLU supports amending the Constitution in part because of the significant rate of African-American disenfranchisement in the State. The ACLU points out that while African-Americans represent 6.6% of the State’s population, they represent roughly 24% of the disenfranchised population. This fact was also mentioned by Paul in his denunciation of the current system.
Paul’s comments have caused a sea change in the State Senate GOP. Kentucky Senate Republicans have altered their position and now signal their support for HB 70, including the GOP caucus chair. It appears that a significant change has occurred in the Blue Grass GOP that may give HB 70 new life. What remains to be seen, however, is whether the influence of Senator Paul will be short-lived or whether it will take root and affect the party’s policies. Additionally, HB 70 enjoys popular support. A SurveyUSA poll discovered that 51% of those polled supported the bill while a mere 38% opposed it. It seems likely, therefore, that Kentucky’s current law on the matter will soon be changing. As HB 70 has popular support, bi-partisan support in the House, and now support of prominent GOP figures in the State, its future passage seems more and more certain.