WASHINGTON — A fast-growing movement among states to return voting rights to former felons is scheduled on Thursday to add a prominent convert: Kentucky, one of only two states that still strip all former felons of the right to cast a ballot.
The state’s newly elected Democratic governor, Andy Beshear, promised in his inauguration speech on Tuesday to sign an executive order restoring the vote to more than 100,000 of the estimated 240,000 Kentuckians who have completed felony sentences. He said that they “have done wrong in the past but are doing right now,” and that “they deserve to participate in our great democracy.”
Voting-rights advocates called Kentucky’s decision a significant advance in a campaign to return the vote to felons that began decades ago and has won widespread attention and support only recently.
But while the most recent changes have returned voting rights to well over 1.5 million people nationwide, it remains unclear how they will affect the political process. A handful of academic studies suggest that former prisoners register and vote at rates well below national averages.
Mr. Beshear did not specify whom his order would cover, but he is widely expected to extend the right to most if not all those who committed nonviolent felonies. His father, Steve Beshear, a former governor, signed a similar order in his last days in office in 2015, but his Republican successor, Matt Bevin, revoked it.
Andy Beshear ended Mr. Bevin’s re-election bid last month, winning the race for governor by barely 5,000 votes. Mr. Bevin, who was widely unpopular even among Republicans, at first claimed the election was marred by irregularities, then said he had lost because Democrats were “so good at harvesting votes in urban communities.”
The governor’s order will leave Iowa as the only state with a total ban on voting by former felons. There, too, a Democratic governor signed an order restoring rights to some former felons in 2005, only to see it revoked by his Republican successor. The current Republican governor, Kim Reynolds, has supported re-enfranchising former felons, but the state Legislature has not acted on the matter.
Governor Beshear’s order won quick praise from civil rights and criminal justice organizations, even as they expressed disappointment that it covered only some citizens who have been returned to society.
“This is a giant step forward, and I think the momentum gained by making Iowa the only one left is really going to fast-track normalizing this issue,” said Myrna Pérez, the director of the voting rights and elections program at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. “The fewer states you have with permanent disenfranchisement, the easier it is to move the baseline.”
Since 1997, 24 states have approved some type of measure to ease voting bans, according to Marc Mauer, the executive director of the Sentencing Project, a Washington group that advocates criminal justice policy changes. But the movement made national headlines only in 2016, when Virginia’s Democratic governor at the time, Terry McAuliffe, signed an order giving voting rights to some 156,000 former felons.
Like Kentucky, Virginia bars felons from voting for life unless a governor restores their right, a decades-old restriction that, like similar measures in some other states, was designed at least in part to disenfranchise African-Americans. The state had gradually lowered the barriers to winning restoration, but Mr. McAuliffe effectively removed all obstacles and made restoration automatic for those who had completed their sentences.
The movement gained further steam in 2018, when Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment restoring voting rights to roughly 1.4 million former felons, excepting those convicted of murder or sex offenses.
Since then, Nevada has removed a ban on voting for 77,000 citizens on parole or probation, Louisiana has eased a ban affecting about 40,000 former felons under supervision, and New Jersey’s Legislature appears poised to pass similar legislation. Colorado has extended the vote to parolees and required its corrections department to notify them of their rights, and Arizona has abolished a requirement that first-time felons pay outstanding fines to win back their voting rights.
There has been some pushback. Some experts say the restoration of voting rights in Kentucky and Florida was limited in scope because public support was weak for giving the vote to people who had committed violent crimes, even if they had completed their sentences.
In Florida, Republicans blunted the impact of the voter-approved amendment by passing a law that required former felons to pay all fines, restitution and court costs before being deemed to have completed their sentences. The measure effectively denied the vote to hundreds of thousands of those who are too poor to pay the fees or are paying them in installments that will not be completed for years.
Florida’s Supreme Court is considering a challenge to the law and is expected to issue a ruling early next year.
Many analysts say Republican opposition to restoring voting rights is at least partly rooted in politics, because a disproportionate number of former felons are members of minority groups that tend to vote for Democrats. But some of the few studies on the issue suggest that political concerns may be exaggerated, or even outright wrong.
One recent analysis, a 2015 review of Iowa’s brief restoration of the vote to ex-felons, found that only about 15 percent of recently enfranchised people cast ballots in the 2008 presidential election. A 2009 study of 666 former felons in Erie County, N.Y., concluded that their turnout was in the single-digit range. And the researchers who conducted the Iowa study have cited statistics indicating that former felons tend to register as Democrats in some states and as independents in others.
Voting-rights advocates allowed that participation appears low, but say that is a diversion from their central premise: that people should not be denied the right to vote as punishment for a criminal record.
That view appears to have gained public support as tough-on-crime laws and drug epidemics like the current opioid crisis have expanded the so-called criminal class to wide segments of mainstream society. In Kentucky, nearly one in 10 whites has a felony record, often because of comparatively low-level narcotics violations. For African-Americans, the consequences are far greater; one in four — and one in three men — has a felony record.
In any case, advocates said, there is ample reason to believe that the voting record of newly released prisoners has nowhere to go but up. The Iowa study included, for example, that participation grew when former felons were educated about their new voting rights, removing confusion about whether casting a ballot still violated the law.
“It’ll be interesting to see what happens in Kentucky,” said Mr. Mauer, of the Sentencing Project. “It’s one thing for the governor to sign a paper saying they have the right to vote, but how does that work? Does everyone get a piece of paper in the mail? Does anyone describe to you how to register to vote?”
And Ms. Pérez, from the Brennan Center, said she believed low turnout among former felons was but “the tip of the iceberg.”
“They’re trying to get jobs, trying to maintain sobriety, trying to get their children back. Voting is just one of the important things they’re trying to do,” she said. “This is going to need some time to ramp up, and it will need people to speak out loud that they matter. These people are starting out so far behind because they’ve gotten the message for so long that they don’t count.”
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