It's Time to Restore Felon Voting Rights Skip to content

It's Time to Restore Felon Voting Rights

6 min read

In the United States, there are around 6.1 million people who are disenfranchised due to a felony conviction, including 3.1 million who have completed their sentences. This represents about 2.5% of the total voting age population. While staggering enough on their own, the numbers are even more striking when broken down by race. Currently, 7.4% of our nation’s African-American population is disenfranchised due to a felony conviction, compared to 1.8% of the non-African-American population. One out of every thirteen African Americans in our country is legally ineligible to vote.

[bctt tweet=”One out of every thirteen African Americans in our country is legally ineligible to vote.” username=”ForwardKY”]

While most Constitutional amendments have served to extend the franchise (15th, 19th, 23rd, 26th) or to make voting easier (24th), section 2 of the Fourteenth Amendment allows for a voter’s rights to be taken away for “participation in rebellion, or other crime.” What constitutes “other crimes” and the results of this form of disenfranchisement has varied dramatically from state to state.

Disenfranchisement in Kentucky

Currently, Kentucky is one of just three states, along with Florida and Iowa, that permanently bar felons from voting, and we rank third behind Florida and Mississippi in terms of the percentage of residents that can’t vote. Felons are prevented from voting in Section 145 of Kentucky’s Constitution, which also bars those in custody as well as “idiots and insane persons” from voting.

9% of Kentucky’s voting age population is permanently prevented from voting because of a felony conviction. Even more troubling is the fact that 26% of Kentucky’s African-American population cannot vote, which is up from 22% in 2013. This racial discrepancy is not likely to get any better. As of December 15, 2016, African Americans made up 21% of the total prison population in the state, despite being just 8.3% of the overall population. When 1 in 11 Kentuckians and 1 in 4 African American Kentuckians can’t vote, there are serious democratic and racial issues that need to be addressed.

[bctt tweet=”When 1 in 11 Kentuckians and 1 in 4 black Kentuckians can’t vote, there are serious issues that need addressing.” username=”ForwardKY”]

Addressing the Issue

Recently, steps have been taken to address this issue. In 2015, Governor Beshear issued an executive order restoring voting rights to around 180,000 Kentuckians. This order was promptly rescinded by Governor Bevin upon taking office, who felt it should be addressed through legislative rather than executive means. Governor Bevin has suggested support for such action if undertaken by the General Assembly.

Another effort came through the General Assembly last year. House Bill 40 was passed which allowed for the expungement of a felony record for certain Class D felonies. Those who file an application can have their record expunged, which restores a person’s right to vote. This was a welcomed step. However, the restoration of rights is not automatic. A person still has to fill out forms and pay several hundred dollars, which is not a small sum for a recently released individual to be able to save.

There are currently two bills before the General Assembly, one in the House and one in the Senate, that deal with felon re-enfranchisement. Senate Bill 69 was proposed by Senator Gerald Neal, and has been assigned to the Senate State and Local Government Committee.

House Bill 170, proposed by Reps. Darryl Owens, Joni Jenkins, Derrick Graham, and Arnold Simpson has not yet been assigned to a committee. In addition to the traditional crimes of treason and election bribery, the House bill adds murder and certain sex crimes to the list of felonies that would make a person ineligible for re-enfranchisement. If passed, the Restoration of Voting Rights Amendment would allow those convicted of felonies the right to vote after completing their sentences. The restoration of these rights would be automatic.

Re-enfranchising people after they have been released from prison is not even all that extreme. People who are actually incarcerated can vote in the states of Vermont and Maine, as well as Puerto Rico (though all of Puerto Rico’s residents are disenfranchised in federal elections). Vermont’s society has not crumbled as a result. This has not resulted in gains for one party over another, as Maine has both a Republican Governor and a Republican State Senate.

This Constitutional Amendment would be submitted to Kentucky voters for ratification or rejection, so even if it passes the General Assembly it would still have to gain the support of voters. Even so, this bill is an important step in the effort to reintegrate citizens and strengthen our democracy. The General Assembly should pass these bills and give Kentucky voters a chance to be heard, and every effort should be made to convince KY voters to support this Amendment.

Why Does This Matter?

At first, supporting these bills may not make sense. Defending the rights of felons doesn’t seem like a winning strategy. This form of “civic death” has historical precedent, and after all, shouldn’t felons be punished?

No. People convicted of felonies still retain other rights. Even those on death row have rights. Taking away a person’s right to vote due to a felony is not a logical course of action. Even the fear that those convicted of felonies would not vote in a responsible manner is not proper justification. You cannot exclude a group of people from voting simply because you are afraid of how they might vote, or turn a criminal record into some sort of “character test” for voting.

In her book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander argues that those convicted of felonies exist in a “parallel universe” (2012, p. 142) where they are no longer in prison yet still live under a form of lifelong punishment where discrimination is perfectly legal. People are “locked up and locked out.” Even in places where re-enfranchisement is possible, the process can be so complicated that many never attempt it.

Re-enfranchising those who have been convicted of felonies can also help with reintegration efforts. In addition to strengthening democracy and helping those with records feel as though they are full citizens, they are also less likely to recidivate. Felons who live in states where voting rights are restored are 10% less likely to re-offend than those living in states which permanently bar them from voting. The threat of disenfranchisement does not serve as a deterrent to crime, but the feeling of being a marginal citizen may encourage further criminal behavior.

Some may also wonder if it’s even worth the effort. Are former criminals even likely to vote? There do appear to be differences in levels of voter turnout between those who have committed felonies and those who have not. This can be due to negative associations with government, a loss of social capital, or simply believing that they are ineligible to vote. However, these differences can be made up with intentional informational efforts. Even a simple mailer sent to homes can raise the likelihood that the formerly imprisoned will vote.

Disenfranchisement and Race

In discussing disenfranchisement laws, you cannot avoid discussing race. As the criminal justice system disproportionately affects minorities, it follows that felon disenfranchisement laws also disproportionately affect minorities. The racial bias present in these laws prevents African Americans from having adequate representation in our political system.

However, this racial bias is not in any way accidental. Despite seeming race neutral, these disenfranchisement laws stemmed from a “strategy of racial containment.” The strategy of disenfranchisement grew in the 19th century as a response to Reconstruction, and was a way to prevent blacks from voting. The larger the black population in a state, the more likely it was to pass disenfranchisement laws. This was true of both Northern and Southern States. It is no surprise, then, that Maine and Vermont, which allow those in prison to vote, are the two whitest states in the country. Fears of minority voters may not have had the same resonance there.

When played out, the results of this racial bias become even more troubling. Prisoners generally cannot vote, yet they still typically get counted in the district in which they are incarcerated, which is often rural and outside their home district. This dilutes the population in areas with large minority populations and inflates the populations of other areas. The NAACP refers to this as “prison-based gerrymandering.” Blacks get underrepresented while whites get over represented. Denying minorities the right to vote while still counting them towards Census totals is all too reminiscent of the Constitution’s notorious three-fifths clause. Furthermore, once released, prisoners are subject to taxation without representation, a fundamentally un-American idea.

Going Forward

Kentucky remains one of the only three states which denies those convicted of felonies the right to vote. As a result, 1 in 11 Kentuckians of voting age cannot cast a ballot. Executive orders and bills in the General Assembly have shown real movement on felon voting rights. The pair of bills currently under consideration would allow current voters the chance to weigh in on the issue. This is a tremendous opportunity to strengthen democracy in the Commonwealth, to reintegrate people who have served their time, and take a step towards addressing racial injustice.

This is not a partisan issue. Though sponsored by Democrats, the idea has been supported by both Governor Bevin and Senator Rand Paul. We can and should move this legislation forward. Please contact the members of the Senate State and Local Government Committee and voice your support for restoring felon voting rights.


[thrive_text_block color=”blue” headline=”Get Involved”]Even if these bills pass, there could still be a lengthy period before it can be voted on by Kentuckians. If you are interested in the felony expungement process, please visit the Kentucky Court of Justice. You can also apply for a restoration of rights from the Governor. And, if you want to help push the issue of felon voting right forward, contact the S&LG Committee linked above, or work with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth on their Voting Rights Project.[/thrive_text_block]

Print Friendly and PDF

Neal Turpin

Dr. Neal Turpin is a City Planner, and also part-time faculty in U of L's Department of Political Science. He lives in Louisville with his wife and children. (Read the rest on the Contributors page.)