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Advocates testify at judiciary committee about restoring felons’ voting rights; LWVs weighs in

Representatives from Secure Democracy USA and fellow election policy advocates testified recently before the Kentucky General Assembly’s Interim Committee on Judiciary at the State Capitol Annex in Frankfort regarding the vital issue of voting rights restoration.

Kentucky is currently one of only a handful of states that permanently disenfranchises people convicted of any felony offense. Today, 43 other states automatically restore voting rights after an individual completes their sentence, including Arkansas, Missouri, Louisiana, South Dakota and Texas.

“I’m here to express our strong support for voting rights restoration and to urge you to advance this critical issue,” said Charley Olena, vice president of advocacy at Secure Democracy USA. “It is estimated that approximately 200,000 Kentuckians are currently disenfranchised due to a felony conviction. These are real citizens all over the Commonwealth who have served their time and are living, working, raising families, and paying taxes in their communities — yet they cannot vote or participate in our political process.”

Pollster Robert Blizzard of Public Opinion Strategies shared data from his firm’s recent statewide survey that confirms that a significant majority of voters in the Commonwealth support restoring voting eligibility for individuals who have completed their sentence.

Highlights from this fall’s in-depth poll include:

• 74% of Republican primary voters support restoring voting eligibility for individuals who have completed their sentence, including terms of probation and parole, and settled all fines and fees required by their sentence — including 65% who describe themselves as “very conservative” and 84% as “somewhat conservative.”

• 70% of Republican primary voters support the state legislature putting a constitutional amendment on an upcoming ballot to determine a permanent solution.

• 53% of Republican primary voters initially reported supporting the amendment. After hearing more information — particularly around the importance of providing a second chance to Kentuckians who have worked hard to earn one — support grew to 60%.

“Society needs an effective justice system to hold people accountable and protect all of us from harm,” said Jason Hall, executive director of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky. “However, once the conditions set by that system have been met, the interest of society is best met by the person who committed the criminal act once again accepting and fulfilling the responsibilities to the community. That includes working, paying taxes, meeting their family obligations, and participating in the political life of their community.”

Greg Kildow, general manager of RAD Accessories in Marshall County, and Marcus Jackson, organizing coordinator at ACLU of Kentucky, each shared their personal stories of seeking reintegration into society following completion of their criminal sentence.

“Despite the positive steps I’ve taken to rebuild my life as a productive citizen of our Commonwealth and the success I’ve found in my career and personal life, I will not be eligible to vote.” said Kildow. “I am hopeful that the day will come that I can proudly register as a member of the Republican party and make my voice heard at the polls on decisions that will impact my future — which continues to look very bright.”

“On November 8 (just like many workplaces across the state), the ACLU of Kentucky will provide me time off to vote; but I cannot vote because of a 1992 conviction,” said Jackson. “The irony of disenfranchisement is that the very behavior that society encourages — commitment to the larger social and political collective — is undermined by a law that denies the right to vote to people who desire to engage in that way.”

Senator Brandon Storm (R-London) plans to sponsor legislation in the upcoming 2023 Kentucky General Assembly regular session that would place a constitutional amendment on the ballot regarding voting rights restoration.

Archived video from last week’s Interim Committee on Judiciary hearing can be viewed online at www.ket.org.

League of Women Voters weigh in

Following the hearing, the League of Women Voters issued a statement in support of a constitution amendment restoring voting rights:

“Kentucky remains only one of three states in the country that permanently bars its citizens from voting if they have a felony conviction.  As a result, currently 152,727 Kentuckians are barred from voting. This is the seventh highest rate of disenfranchisement for all citizens and the eighth highest rate for its African-American population among all the states.
“Amending the Kentucky constitution is the only means whereby voting rights can be automatically restored to those persons convicted of a felony, which would provide a more permanent solution to this problem.  
“Fran Wagner, President of the LWVKY, commented, “While this hearing did not address a specific piece of legislation, the League of Women Voters views this informational hearing as the beginning of a conversation among our legislators and constituents that will ultimately result in the successful passage of a bill giving this decision to the people of Kentucky.”
“Access to the ballot box and the right to vote is a sacred principle of democracy giving citizens a voice in how they are governed. It grounds all other rights, empowering citizens to become participants in government rather than mere petitioners. It should not be denied to those working to build new, productive lives.” 

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