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Losing the Right to Vote: Perceptions of Permanent Disenfranchisement and the Civil Rights Restoration Application Process in the State of Kentucky

April 01, 2006
Elizabeth A. Wahler
Kentucky's application process for restoration of voting rights for people with felony convictions creates major barriers and will likely deter many people from voting.

Disenfranchisement laws prevent many individuals from participating in the democratic process, and are affecting increasingly large numbers of individuals across the United States.

Forty-eight states bar prison inmates from voting, 36 states bar convicted felons from voting while they are on parole, and 31 of these states also exclude felony probationers from voting. Three states, including Kentucky, are permanent disenfranchisement states, prohibiting all ex-felons from voting even after they have completed their full sentence. Nine other states prohibit voting for people convicted of specific types of offenses, or allow for voting rights restoration for certain types of offenses after a specified waiting period.

In Kentucky, voting rights restoration for individuals convicted of a felony is left up to the Governor’s discretion. Until recently, Kentucky’s ex-felon population could apply to have their civil rights reinstated upon completion of their full sentence and probation/parole term with a one-page application outlining their convictions and sentences served. Because many ex-felons were not aware of their voting eligibility or how to obtain an application, legislation was enacted in 2001 that streamlined the process to make voting rights restoration easier for ex-felons completing parole by requiring the Department of Corrections to inform and assist those eligible with completion of the application.

While that policy is still in effect, Governor Ernie Fletcher enacted a policy in 2004 that made the process of reinstatement more difficult by adding a ‘character test’ to the application process. Now, instead of a relatively simple one page application, eligible individuals must make their initial application to the governor’s office (and can receive assistance from the Department of Corrections with this portion), but then must submit an additional written letter or essay explaining why they think their rights should be reinstated along with three letters from character references. After receiving the paperwork, the governor’s office forwards the individual’s name and application to that individual’s county prosecutor to give the prosecuting attorney an opportunity to object if they do not feel that the individual should have their voting rights restored.

This study examines the personal experiences of 40 individuals who have lost their right to vote in the state of Kentucky. Data was collected by conducting open-ended interviews that examined respondents’ opinions of disenfranchisement, their knowledge of the application process for restoration of their civil rights, and their perceptions of their own ability to complete the application process.

To read this report, download the PDF below.

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