When Kentucky goes to the polls Tuesday, more than 300,000 potential voters will find themselves on the sidelines.
Unless Kentucky law is changed, their criminal records will almost certainly keep them from the voting booth forever.
Most states give felons their right to vote back when they leave prison, or finish the probation or parole term tied to their conviction. But Kentucky is one of three states, along with Florida and Iowa, still clinging to a permanent ban. Here, only a stroke of the governor’s pen can restore that right.
“There’s a whole idea that if you commit a crime, you need to suffer the consequences,” said Mantell Stevens of Lexington. “That’s just not true. I was a kid.”
Stevens was charged with felony drug possession at 19. He served a 30-day prison sentence and got on with his life. He wanted to vote in the 2004 presidential election, the first time he began to pay attention to politics, and realized he couldn’t take part. Once the loss of that liberty sank in, Stevens said he considered moving to a state with looser restrictions.
“The right to vote, I believe, is one of the fundamental civil rights we have that makes us feel like we’re a part of something,” Stevens said.
Nine percent of Kentucky’s population can’t vote due to a conviction, according to The Sentencing Project.
The Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, which advocates for criminal justice reform, examined national voting rights and found that an estimated 6 million people can’t vote due to felonies. Only Florida and Mississippi prevent a higher percentage of its residents from voting than Kentucky, the group found.
Kentucky’s laws have a disproportionate impact on African-Americans — more than anywhere else. More than 1 in 4 black people of voting age in Kentucky are barred from the polls, the highest disenfranchisement rate in the nation.
Kentucky is bucking a nationwide trend toward opening up access, said Marc Mauer, executive director of The Sentencing Project. The disenfranchisement laws can be traced to America’s founding, with felons the only remaining voter block that remains largely left out, Mauer said.
Those in favor of maintaining the felon voting restriction often argue that people with criminal convictions aren’t trustworthy or deserving, Mauer said. He thinks that’s fundamentally problematic.
“If we start imposing character tests on voting, it’s a very slippery slope,” Mauer said.
Kentucky is an extreme outlier in its lifetime ban for felons — despite bipartisan support for reform, said Tomas Lopez, counsel with the democracy program at the Brennan Center for Justice. Politicians such as U.S. Sen. Rand Paul and Gov. Matt Bevin have spoken out in favor of automatic restoration.
“There is a broad understanding that rights restoration is the right thing to do,” Lopez said.
But changes have been incremental, and the options for getting voting rights back are still few.
Kentucky’s law stems from the state’s constitution, which was enacted in 1792. The constitution bans anyone with a felony from voting for a lifetime. There are a few ways felons can become eligible to vote:
- A pardon from the governor
- A formal vote restoration from the governor
- Expungement through the courts
Kentucky’s governors have restored the rights of about 10,000 people since 2005, according to the secretary of state’s office. Though he supports restoring the rights of non-violent felons, Bevin has not issued any voting restorations. Bevin’s spokeswoman did not respond to emailed questions about the process.
Former Gov. Steve Beshear issued an executive order last fall intended to automatically restore rights to more than half of the state’s felons. Bevin rescinded it soon after taking office, saying such a change should come through a constitutional amendment instead of an executive action.
The state’s new felony expungement process, which went into effect in July, is available only to felons who committed certain low-level crimes, all stemming from just one incident. The filing fee costs $500. So far, 223 felony cases have been expunged, according to Kentucky’s Administrative Office of the Courts.
Stevens, who has never voted, currently works with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth to mobilize others with felonies to lobby for changes. He qualifies for an expungement, but he doesn’t have the $500 or the time to jump through the hoops it would require.
“Those rights are automatically taken away from us, and they need to be automatically restored,” Stevens said.
A bill that would automatically restore votes for certain offenses, HB 70, has not received a hearing in the Senate. Rep. Darryl Owens, a Louisville Democrat and bill sponsor, said it will have bipartisan support if it gets a hearing in the Senate.
Michael Hiser of Bardstown caught his first charge on his 18th birthday. He spent the next 25 years as an addict, committing the kinds of crimes that people do for drugs.
Hiser said he came out of prison ready to get involved in society, but he quickly learned he had no say in government.
“I was under the belief, like millions are, that after five years you’d get your voting rights restored,” Hiser said. “I’d finished my parole.”
Instead, he paid taxes, obeyed the law and stayed home on Election Day.
“Democracy demands full participation or it’s not democracy,” Hiser said. “I don’t understand how any [politicians] can say, ‘I represent Kentucky’ if you don’t represent 250,000 of them. You represent part of Kentucky, and really only the good part?”
He thinks the options available to felons like him are humiliating, and amount to begging for a basic right. Still, he applied for a pardon — and it was granted last year.
He finally cast his first vote ever in the presidential primary in May.
“It was extremely emotional,” he said. “In the whole sales pitch of the American experiment, I finally have a voice.”
Come Tuesday, Hiser, 46, will be filling out his second ballot.
Kate Howard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and (502) 814.6546.