Kentucky Becomes Latest State to Restore Voting Rights to Felons

On Nov. 24, with two weeks left in his second and final term, Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear signed an executive order that automatically restored the right to vote and hold public office to approximately 140,000 nonviolent felons who have completed their sentences.  

“The right to vote is one of the most intrinsically American privileges, and thousands of Kentuckians are living, working and paying taxes in the state but are denied this basic right,” Beshear said in a statement announcing his action. “Once an individual has served his or her time and paid all restitution, society expects them to reintegrate into their communities and become law-abiding and productive citizens. A key part of that transition is the right to vote.”

Kentucky had been one of just three states—with Florida and Iowa—that imposed lifetime voting bans on felons, unless they received clemency from the governor.

Beshear’s order does not apply to people convicted of violent or sex crimes, bribery or treason, and only takes effect after all terms of a felon’s sentence have been satisfied, including probation and restitution. For those currently in the system, the Kentucky Department of Corrections will issue a certificate of restoration of civil rights once all requirements are met. People who have already left the system must file a form that is available at probation and parole offices and online. 

As an executive order, the new policy could be altered or rescinded by a future governor. Gov.-elect Matt Bevin has expressed support for restoring voting rights to nonviolent offenders, and a spokesman indicated that the executive order will be evaluated during the transition period. 

To make the changes permanent, the legislature would have to pass a constitutional amendment and have it approved by voters. 

Former Rep. Jesse Crenshaw, who championed similar voting rights legislation for twelve years, said “If the voters approve a constitutional amendment, future governors will not be able to reverse the executive order.”

Nationwide, almost six million Americans are currently prohibited from voting because of a past felony offense, according to the Sentencing Project. This includes 1 in 13 African-American men nationwide, a far higher rate than for other groups. 

State laws vary considerably on when—and if—felons can regain their voting rights. In two states, Maine and Vermont, felons never lose their right to vote, even while incarcerated. In other states, people with felony convictions automatically regain their voting rights after completion of their prison sentences, or alternatively, after their probation and parole periods end. Eight states permanently restrict the rights of some felons, while two states—Florida and Iowa—restrict the rights of all felons. 

According to the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, over the past two decades, more than 20 states have made it easier for former prisoners to vote, either by making the process easier and more accessible, reducing waiting times, or by allowing felons to regain their rights earlier in the reentry process. This has been done through a combination of legislative and executive actions.

Like Kentucky, the Virginia Constitution prohibits people with a felony conviction from voting unless their rights have been restored by the governor. In recent years, governors there have taken executive action to restore rights to certain offenders. Former Gov. Bob McDonnell allowed non-violent felons to have their voting rights restored at the end of their sentence, while others could apply for restoration after a five-year waiting period. In 2014, Gov. Terry McAuliffe restored voting rights to people who have completed their sentences for drug offenses and reduced the waiting period for other violent felons to three years.

In 2015, the Maryland General Assembly voted to restore the right to vote to felons when they left prison, rather than when they completed their parole or probation periods. Gov. Larry Hogan, however, vetoed the bill, saying in a letter to legislators that the current law “achieves the proper balance between repayment of obligations to society for a felony conviction and the restoration of the various restricted rights.”

Supporters of the legislation hope to achieve the necessary votes to override the governor’s veto when the General Assembly returns to work in January. 

Tomas Lopez, counsel for the Brennan Center, credits a tie to the larger issue of criminal justice reform for much of the bipartisan support for restoring voting rights to felons.

“There is a growing consensus that too many people are being incarcerated for too long, and that we are not doing everything we can to successful reintegrate prisoners back into society,” he said.

 “The right to vote is a key component to an effective reentry program. We need to provide opportunities for people to reintegrate into society after they leave prison,” said Lopez. “Civic engagement is one of the best things you can do.”