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Bill to restore felon voting rights moves forward

Published 11:38 am Tuesday, January 14, 2014

The sponsor of a bill amending the Kentucky Constitution to restore voting rights for felons convicted of most crimes remains cautiously optimistic of its chances after a House committee advanced the measure Tuesday.

House Bill 70 would immediately allow people convicted of felonies other than rape, sodomy, sexual intercourse with a minor or intentional murder to vote in state elections after their sentence, parole or probation expired. The House Elections, Constitutional Amendments and Intergovernmental Affairs Committee approved the bill 

8-0, with Rep. Joseph Fischer, R-Fort Thomas, voting “pass.”

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Jesse Crenshaw, D-Lexington, goes to the House floor, where similar legislation has fared well in the past. Last year, the House passed Crenshaw’s HB 70 by a 75-26 vote, but the bill was not heard in a Senate committee.

Crenshaw, who has championed the issue for years and will not seek re-election this fall, said his fingers are crossed in hopes the Senate will consider HB 70 during his final session as a member of the General Assembly.

Kentucky is one of a few states that bar ex-felons from voting, and the nonprofit advocacy group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth estimated in a report last year that more than 180,000 residents who’ve completed felony sentences are not permitted to vote.

“I think if it will arrive in the Senate and be called in committee and called on the floor, I think it has a good chance of passage,” Crenshaw said after the committee’s vote. “And I think the voters of Kentucky, if it’s placed on the ballot as this would require, then I think the voters will be in favor because it’s a matter of fairness.”

Senate President Robert Stivers, R-Manchester, said the issue is being discussed and has generated some intrigue, but it’s unclear at this point whether there’s broad support in his chamber to move forward at all, let alone in a particular direction.

“What process will this take? How will it affect individuals who have violent, nonviolent, sexual, nonsexual convictions, convictions of fraud or theft?” Stivers said later Tuesday. “… It’s more, I think, an idea of process and competing processes than it is about whether they should or should not get it, when they complete their restoration of civil rights when at some point in time they become eligible.”

The Rev. Patrick Delahanty of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky said allowing ex-felons to vote only with a gubernatorial pardon was “reasonable” when the state Constitution was written, but governors today could spend the entirety of their terms reviewing and approving applications to restore voting rights “if the thousands of eligible ex-offenders” made such requests given advances in both the prison system and criminal offenses.

“Rather than rely on a process that is open to the arbitrary granting of voting rights to some former felons and not others by one governor or the next and rather than keeping in place a system that has led to the disenfranchisement of more than 200,000 persons, Kentucky voters will have the opportunity to put in place a process that has bright lines,” Delahanty said.

House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, spoke in favor of the bill during Tuesday’s committee meeting, his first appearance before a House panel testifying for the restoration of felon voting rights, Crenshaw said.

Hoover, a co-sponsor of HB 70, echoed the comments by Crenshaw and Delahanty on the fairness of withholding a person’s right to vote once his or her debt has been repaid to society.

“I think we are a forgiving people, and when folks have carried out what the courts have imposed upon them in the form of probation or parole or their sentence, I just think it’s a matter of fairness that they be allowed to return the right to vote,” Hoover said.

Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul has also thrown his weight behind the measure, the Associated Press reported Tuesday.

Paul expressed his support for the proposal to several Kentucky lawmakers and expects to promote the legislation to a state Senate committee, Paul spokesman Daniel Bayens said Tuesday.

“A government of, by and for the people is only possible with a free right to vote,” Paul said in a statement. “I am committed to securing this right for the people of the commonwealth.”