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Opinion: Legislature should restore voting rights to Kentuckians with felony convictions

This opinion was originally published in the Kentucky Herald-Leader.

Today, more than 161,000 Kentuckians are ineligible to vote because of a felony conviction. Kentucky is one of only three states in the country that permanently bars anyone with a conviction from voting. This has been in the commonwealth’s constitution since 1891. Legislators have failed to correct this injustice, even though 68 percent of Kentuckians support the automatic restoration of voting rights on completion of sentencing.

It’s long past time for our elected leaders to pass legislation that will right this wrong. They must, and can, take steps to restore the right to vote for people who have made mistakes but have paid for them through the criminal justice system.

Thankfully, today, there is legislation under consideration to do just that. Senate Bill 164 and House Bill 97 would both put an amendment on the ballot to let Kentucky voters decide whether to restore voting rights automatically to those who have completed sentencing, and restore other civil rights after a waiting period.

Without a constitutional change, the power to restore any person’s right to vote will always remain exclusively in the hands of the sitting governor. Different governors have used different criteria for exercising this authority, creating an unpredictable environment for individuals seeking to reclaim their right to vote.

Kentucky needs a clearly defined, fair, and consistent process for restoration of voting rights.

Research shows that reinstating voting rights for formerly incarcerated Kentuckians can improve public safety. Individuals in states that restrict the right to vote after incarceration were found to have a higher likelihood of experiencing a subsequent arrest compared to justice impacted individuals in states who had their voting rights restored.

Studies also show restoring voting and civil rights, along with expunging a criminal record, results in a significant decrease in an individual’s likelihood to commit another offense, an increase in public safety throughout communities, and economic gain.

Disenfranchisement has become an inherent aspect of criminal punishment. In terms of justice, permanently taking away a person’s right to vote imposes a life sentence of exclusion extending far beyond what any judge or jury has decided sufficient. It is used as a tool for retribution, rather than restoration. It does not help with rehabilitation, and it does not help reintegrate people into their communities.

Felony disenfranchisement laws have no place in a modern society. That’s why there is no other democratic society in the world that permanently denies the right to vote to so many people because of a past conviction.

The most sacred principle of democracy is that individuals be allowed to impact how they are governed by voting. The right to vote grounds all other rights, empowering citizens to become participants in government rather than mere petitioners. It should not be denied to anyone simply due to their involvement with the criminal justice system.

Since 2005, the League of Women Voters of Kentucky, has advocated automatic restoration of voting rights to persons who have felony convictions once their sentences are completed. Over the years a growing number of state legislators from both political parties have supported efforts to put an amendment on the ballot so Kentuckians could vote to amend the commonwealth’s constitution to restore voting rights automatically.

Now is the time to finally pass this long-delayed and much-needed legislation. We can no longer allow the Commonwealth of Kentucky to be in the business of denying the right to vote to so many people.

Fran Wagner is the President of the League of Women Voters of Kentucky