FRANKFORT, KY. — Convicted felons can’t vote in Kentucky unless the governor allows it, but a bill moving through the Republican-controlled state Senate would let lawmakers make the decision instead.
Kentucky’s constitution bans all convicted felons from voting in elections, even if they have completed their sentence and been released from prison. The only way a convicted felon could vote is if the governor grants a limited pardon, a lengthy process that involves applying to the governor’s office and having the case reviewed.
House Democrats have already passed a bill that would amend the state constitution to automatically restore voting rights to most nonviolent convicted felons who have completed their sentences. But Senate Republicans have balked at the proposal for years, arguing over which felonies to include and how long felons should have to wait before they can have their rights restored.
Instead, a bill sponsored by Republican Senate President Robert Stivers would change the constitution to give lawmakers the authority to restore voting rights to convicted felons. If it passes, it would put the question on the ballot this fall. If voters approve it, the legislature could come back next year and pass a law to restore the voting rights to some convicted felons.
“I think it is better for us to have the authority and then have a deliberative process on how a restoration of civil rights should be and for what crimes,” Stivers said, adding the issue is not “near and dear to my heart” but said he would “take a shot” at a bill the Republican-controlled Senate could accept.
Critics say Stivers’ bill would not change anything, but simply return felons to the legislative logjam that has killed their efforts for years. As an example, Pam Newman, a member of the advocacy group Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, told lawmakers about her mother, who died in 2013.
Newman said her mother could vote while she lived in Pennsylvania, where state law automatically restores felons’ voting rights upon the completion of their sentence. But once Newton’s mother moved to Kentucky to be closer to her daughter, she lost that right.
“That hurts me. This issue is dear to my heart,” she said.
The competing bills will likely be used as negotiating chips in the final days of the state legislative session. Lawmakers have until March 29 to pass bills. They will come back to Frankfort for two days beginning April 11, but anything passed then could not be overridden if Bevin decides to veto it.
The issue has been debated at the state legislature for years, with no success. Last year, in one of his last acts in office, Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear issued an executive order that automatically restored voting rights to some nonviolent convicted felons if they met certain conditions. But Republican Gov. Matt Bevin repealed that executive order less than a month later. Bevin has said he supports restoring voting rights to convicted felons, but only through the legislative process.