In November 2015, then-Gov. Steve Beshear (D) signed an executive order restoring the voting rights of more than 100,000 people with felony records in Kentucky. But in December of that year, Beshear’s successor, Gov. Matt Bevin (R), undid the executive order — just as easily taking away from ex-felons what the former governor had given them.
On Tuesday, though, Bevin lost his reelection bid to Democrat Andy Beshear, the former governor’s son. And the new governor-elect is poised to sign another executive order that restores voting rights to at least some people with felony records after they’ve served their sentences — potentially increasing the voter rolls by more than 100,000.
Kentucky has one of the strictest laws disenfranchising people with felony records, banning ex-felons from voting for life — unless they get a special reprieve from the state government — even after they finish serving out their prison sentences, parole, or probation. It is only one of two states, along with Iowa, with such a strict lifetime ban.
Based on the Sentencing Project’s 2016 estimates, the ban blocks more than 300,000 people from voting — more than 9 percent of the voting-age population. Due to racial disparities in the criminal justice system, the ban disproportionately affects black voters, with more than a quarter of the black voting age population in Kentucky prohibited from voting.
Florida previously had a lifetime ban for people with felony records, but voters struck it down in 2016. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) is pushing to eliminate her state’s ban through a constitutional amendment. If Reynolds is successful, and Beshear follows through on his promise to restore voting rights for some ex-felons in Kentucky, no state would still have and enforce a strict lifetime ban.
Beshear’s move would leave people unable to vote as long as they are still serving prison sentences, parole, or probation.
Meanwhile, only Maine and Vermont let people vote regardless of their criminal record, which means that people in those states can even vote from prison.
Courts, including the US Supreme Court, have generally upheld such voting restrictions under the US Constitution’s 14th Amendment, which states that the government may abridge the right to vote due to “participation in rebellion, or other crime.”
It’s one of the many collateral effects of getting a felony record or being sent to prison in the US. Other examples include restrictions on employment and bans on receiving welfare benefits, accessing public housing, or qualifying for student loans for higher education.
Voters on Tuesday, though, took a step toward pulling back those collateral consequences — and potentially restoring voting rights to more than 100,000 people in Kentucky.