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Group aims to restore voting rights to Kentuckians with felony convictions

Kentucky State Capitol
Posted at 7:49 AM, Feb 22, 2023
and last updated 2023-02-22 07:49:19-05

FRANKFORT, Ky. (LEX 18) — More than 161,000 Kentuckians currently cannot vote due to a felony conviction, according to the League of Women Voters of Kentucky.

On Tuesday, the group presented a new report on the latest statistics about felony disenfranchisement in Kentucky and recommendations "for a better path forward."

The number one recommendation is a constitutional change. Voting rights advocates want to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot to allow Kentucky voters to decide whether voting rights should be automatically restored. According to the League of Women Voters of Kentucky, the commonwealth is one of only three states in the country that permanently bars anyone with a felony conviction from voting.

"I am one of the 161,000 people that remain disenfranchised due to a felony conviction because I was not impacted by the governor's direct executive order," said Marcus Jackson, an advocate for voting rights.

In 2019, when Gov. Andy Beshear took office, an executive order was signed, which restored voting rights to more than 140,000 people convicted with non-violent felonies. However, executive orders can go as easily as they come. So advocates worry more people could lose their right to vote when there is a change in the Governor's Office.

That has happened before. Former Gov. Steve Beshear gave former felons the right to vote through executive order. However, that order was rescinded shortly after his successor, former Gov. Matt Bevin, took office in 2015.

A constitutional change would be a more permanent solution. Sen Brandon Storm is sponsoring that change through Senate Bill 164. If passed by the General Assembly, the issue would go on the ballot for Kentucky voters to decide. If voters say yes, most former felons would have their voting rights restored. The only exceptions are people convicted of treason, bribery, and election fraud.

"The conviction that prevents me from having my rights automatically restored was from 1992," said Jackson. "I was 19 years old and really it's so painful to me right now because that is a crime I did not commit."

"I did not receive a life sentence. I was not court-ordered to a lifetime of shame and I'm more than the worst thing I've ever done," said Alaina Sweasy, who received a partial pardon that restored her voting rights.

Sweasy explained that although she can vote again, the entire process of moving on was full of red tape and moments that seemed designed to intentionally shame her. She wants Kentuckians to know that most former felons are people who made a mistake and are trying to move on from that mistake.

Other recommendations that the League of Women Voters of Kentucky is making include:

  • Creation of a coordinated government effort that fully implements Executive Order 2019-003 restoring the right to vote, including a robust public education campaign to inform, promote, assist, and provide resources in the restoration process
  • Releasing figures annually on the number of voter rights applications filed and the number approved
  • Provide statements of the reasons for the governor's decisions on individual applications for reinstatement of voting rights
  • Elimination of the $50 filing fee and the $250 application fee for felony expungement

"The future of democracy in Kentucky rests on the ability of all citizens to have their voices heard. The permanent ban on voting for those with a felony conviction not only silences 161,595 Kentuckians, but it also undermines the fundamental principles of our democracy," said Fran Wagner, president of the League of Women Voters of Kentucky. "It is time for the legislature to take action and empower the people of Kentucky to make a choice about who has a say in our democracy."