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Disenfranchisement News: Kentucky Governor-Elect Poised to Expand Voting Rights

November 22, 2019
Democratic Governor-elect Andy Beshear is expected to sign an executive order that restores voting rights to people with non-violent felony convictions who have completed their prison, probation and parole sentence.

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Incoming Kentucky Governor Poised to Expand Voting Rights

After beating Gov. Matt Bevin in the recent election, Democratic Governor-elect Andy Beshear is expected to sign an executive order that restores voting rights to people with non-violent felony convictions who have completed their prison, probation and parole sentence. This move follows in the footsteps of his father, former Gov. Steve Beshear, who restored the voting rights of more than 100,000 people by executive order in 2015. Less than a month later, his executive order was reversed when Gov. Bevin took office.

Democratic lawmakers have also announced a package of bills aimed at increasing voter turnout, including a constitutional amendment to restore voting rights to some people who have completed their felony sentence. The amendment would also have to be passed by voters next fall.

Meanwhile, the Fair Elections Center and Kentucky Equal Justice Center have filed a lawsuit in federal court arguing that Kentucky’s current rights restoration process, which gives the governor sole discretion to grant or deny rights, violates the First Amendment. The suit is on behalf of disenfranchised voters who ask that their “clemency applications be processed under objective rules and criteria, independent of the governor’s whims.”

Several Florida counties create “rocket dockets” to expedite rights restoration

Earlier this year, the Republican-controlled Legislature passed a law that requires the payment of all court-ordered restitution, fines and fees before people with felony convictions are allowed to vote. Civil rights advocates filed suit, arguing that the law is an unconstitutional poll tax that undermines the intent of Florida voters when they overwhelmingly passed Amendment 4.  While the legal battles around the new legislation continue, several counties have created “rocket dockets” and other measures to expedite petitions for fee relief so individuals can regain their voting rights. For example in Palm Beach County, the state’s attorney announced they will put all fines and court costs in separate files that are not associated with individuals sentences and parole terms.

“It’s encouraging that state attorneys, public defenders, judges — a lot of people — are doing everything they can to make voting accessible to those who are entitled to automatic restoration,” said Julie Ebenstein of the ACLU’s Voting Rights Project, which was one of the groups that challenged the Legislature’s restrictions. But the problem is that “until there’s a uniform statewide system that ensures that people aren’t disenfranchised because they can’t afford to pay, then there’s an unconstitutional system in place.”

Des Moines Register says Iowa governor should act now to restore voting rights

Iowa and Kentucky are the only states that currently require people with felony convictions to petition the governor’s office to have their voting rights restored. “This is a national embarrassment that strips people of constitutional rights while punishing and alienating them long after they have served their time for wrongdoing,” wrote the Des Moines Register’s Editorial Board.

Gov. Kim Reynolds recently announced that she will continue to advocate for lawmakers to pass a constitutional amendment to automatically restore voting rights to people who have completed their sentence. The Register’s Editorial Board agreed that seeking a permanent solution through the Legislature is the right move, but emphasized that Gov. Reynolds should still use her executive power to immediately provide relief to thousands of disenfranchised Iowans. In 2005, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack issued an executive order restoring voting rights to an estimated 100,000 people who had completed their sentence. Then shortly after taking office in 2011, Gov. Terry Branstad reversed the order. 

“When the legislative branch refuses to act on an issue, it’s up to the executive branch to do what it can. That is leadership,” wrote the Editorial Board. “If lawmakers don’t like it, they can show some leadership of their own by starting the process to amend the constitution, which would ultimately trigger a public vote.”

Lawsuits call the Mississippi’s disenfranchisement laws unconstitutional

Two class-action lawsuits are challenging the state’s Jim Crow-era voting restrictions that were originally enacted to limit the civil rights of African Americans. Current Mississippi law bans people with felony convictions from voting for life if they have been convicted of one of 22 disenfranchising crimes. In order to regain voting rights, impacted individuals must have the governor intervene or have the State Legislature pass a bill of suffrage on their behalf (which must pass with a two-thirds majority). 

“Automatic lifetime stripping of the right to vote even after you have completed your sentence, repaid your debt to society is cruel and unusual punishment under the Eighth Amendment,” said Paloma Wu, a Southern Poverty Law Center attorney who is representing the plaintiffs in one of the suits. The suffrage bill in particular, she argues, gives politicians unfettered discretion on who gets to vote and who doesn’t. “It’s an arbitrary and racially discriminatory process rooted in the state’s 1890 constitution adopted with the stated intent to, quote, ‘secure to the state of Mississippi white supremacy.’”

Voting in Pennsylvania jails

The current process for voting in Pennsylvania jails is difficult for incarcerated people to navigate and voter education and access varies by county, state advocates argue. In Philadelphia and Allegheny county, wardens hold registration drives, collect absentee ballots, and staff provides assistance to anyone who has questions about what’s on the ballot. In Philadelphia County Jail, an estimated 750 people registered to vote in this year’s election. Yet, there continues to be misinformation about voting rights and some formerly incarcerated people report that they were never given any voter information.

New state voter reforms passed this year may indirectly expand voting access to people in jails, most of whom are awaiting trial. Gov. Tom Wolf recently signed a package of reforms that expand deadlines for registering to vote and for voting by absentee ballot. And earlier this year, a new absentee voting procedure passed that allows a person incarcerated the week before an election to request a ballot the Friday before Election Day, and gives them an extra four days to return the ballot.

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