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Kentucky restores voting rights to ex-felons

Kentucky will restore voting rights to around 170,000 ex-felons, its governor said. It's the latest win in a national push to end felon disenfranchisement.
A polling station located at Pleasant Green Baptist Church is open for voting Nov. 4, 2014 in Lexington, Ky. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty)
A polling station located at Pleasant Green Baptist Church is open for voting Nov. 4, 2014 in Lexington, Ky.

Kentucky is the latest state to restore voting rights to ex-felons — part of a nationwide move against felon disenfranchisement laws that affect nearly 6 million Americans.

Gov. Steve Beshear announced Tuesday morning that he’s signed an executive order that will restore the right to vote and to hold public office to ex-felons who have served out their sentences. The order does not cover those convicted of violent or sex crimes, bribery, or treason.

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“The right to vote is one of the most intrinsically American privileges, and thousands of Kentuckians are living, working and paying taxes in the state but are denied this basic right,” Beshear, a Democrat, said at a press conference. “Once an individual has served his or her time and paid all restitution, society expects them to reintegrate into their communities and become law-abiding and productive citizens. A key part of that transition is the right to vote.”

Beshear's order will immediately restore voting rights to around 140,000 Kentuckians, and another 30,000 will become eligible for rights restoration over time, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. The group called the announcement "an incredible breakthrough in the movement to end criminal disenfranchisement policies nationwide."

The governor is acting just two weeks before he'll leave office. Matt Bevin, a Republican, is set to be sworn in Dec. 7. Bevin has said he supports restoring gun and voting rights to felons.

Kentucky’s constitution bars those convicted of a felony from voting, affecting an estimated 180,000 people, who are disproportionately poor and non-white. Felons who want to vote have to apply directly to the governor, who has sole authority to decide the issue.

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Kentucky’s junior senator, Rand Paul, had pushed state lawmakers in recent years to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would restore felon voting rights. But those efforts have stalled in the legislature.

Other states, too, have seen efforts to liberalize their rules on felon voting — part of a broader reassessment of harsh criminal justice policies. Since 2014, Virginia Gov. Terry McAulliffe has announced several steps designed to make it easier to regain the right to vote. Maryland lawmakers this year passed a bill to restore voting rights to may ex-felons, but it was vetoed by Gov. Larry Hogan, a Republican. In Florida, whose law disenfranchises nearly one in four African-Americans, there’s a grassroots push to get a constitutional amendment onto the 2016 ballot.

Voting rights groups cheered Beshear’s move.

“The ACLU-KY applauds Gov. Beshear for taking an important step toward breaking down barriers to ballot boxes in Kentucky,” said Michael Aldridge, Kentucky executive director of the ACLU. “We know the Commonwealth’s disenfranchisement policies, some of the harshest in the country, have negatively impacted families and communities, especially those of color, by reducing their collective political voice. Studies have shown that individuals who vote are more likely to give to charity, volunteer, attend school board meetings, serve on juries and are more actively involved in their communities.”