Photo via KFTC
Photo via KFTC

For over a decade, activists in Kentucky have pushed for a constitutional amendment that would automatically restore the voting rights of over 100,000 nonviolent felons who have completed their sentences, as the state is one of the few remaining to not do so. While the popular legislation has been continually blocked in the state Senate, outgoing Gov. Steve Beshear hinted in an interview Tuesday that he is considering taking executive action in the next week to address the issue.

Asked by Insider Louisville if he is considering a blanket pardon for Kentucky’s former nonviolent felons — as groups such as Kentuckians for the Commonwealth are hoping for — Beshear said he would make an announcement soon on the restoration of rights process, but he was not ready to reveal the specifics.

“We have been working on the idea of trying to make it more automatic than it is right now, trying to afford that opportunity to more people ,” said Beshear. “So we’ll talk more about that in the next few days.”

Gov. Steve Beshear
Gov. Steve Beshear

According to the most recent figures from The Sentencing Project, 243,000 felons in Kentucky have had their right to vote stripped away, including 180,000 who already have completed their sentence. Most of those 180,000 are nonviolent felons, whose rights would have been automatically restored by the HB 70 constitutional amendment, which has passed nearly unanimously in the state House over the last five years, but never come up for a vote in the state Senate.

Kentucky is one of only a handful of states to not automatically restore voting rights for any felons after they have finished their sentence; in the commonwealth, this right can only be restored through a direct pardon from the governor. Thirty-nine states automatically restore the voting rights of all felons, while eight states automatically restore such rights to only some felons, which HB 70 would have done.

While hinting at his action to come, Beshear noted his longstanding support for the automatic restoration of voting rights for former felons.

“A lot of states have made it automatic, and we ought to make it automatic, honestly,” said Beshear. “When you’ve served your time out and you’ve paid your restitution and all that, and you’re trying to become a productive member of society again, part of your integration back into society is the right to vote. It’s just a basic right that you ought to have, assuming you’ve paid your debt.”

Michael Aldridge, executive director of the ACLU of Kentucky, told IL the organization is hopeful Beshear makes a significant executive action to restore voting rights that the legislature has failed to make over the past decade.

“The ACLU-KY, and our restoration of voting rights allies, eagerly await Governor Beshear’s announcement on voter restoration efforts in Kentucky,” said Aldridge. “By continuing to deny Kentuckians the right to vote based on a past criminal conviction, the government endorses a system that expects these citizens to contribute to the community, but denies them participation in our democracy. We know this has impacted families and communities of those who are disfranchised by reducing their collective political voice.”

Michael Hiser, a minister and instructor at JCTC, is one of those nonviolent felons who long ago finished his sentence but still cannot vote. An longtime KFTC advocate for HB 70, Hiser said he met with Beshear to talk about the issue shortly before this month’s election and is optimistic about what the governor hinted at yesterday.

“I am hopeful, because Beshear has always been an ally for democracy,” said Hiser. “He waited and waited and waited on the Senate to act, and since they haven’t, he kind of feels that he doesn’t have a choice but to do something. This won’t solve the problem going forward, but it might help 180,000 people and change his legacy to be that of a governor that gave freedom and voting rights to those people, and how wonderful would that be?”

“I want to be able to vote,” added Hiser. “I got out of prison and changed my life, went to college, became a professor, became a therapist and now run youth centers. Everything has changed, except for the fact that I’m not allowed to be a part of the future of our community and its decision making. And that’s not a good message to send to my 7-year-old, that Kentucky penalizes you for the rest of your life for mistakes you made when you were under the influence or younger. We should be able to pay our debt and move on.”

Republican Governor-elect Matt Bevin — who will be sworn into office in three weeks — told IL during the campaign that he supports the automatic restoration of voting rights along the lines of HB 70. He also said he was confident that he could change the minds of Republicans in the state Senate on the issue — such as Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, who vowed to continually block the bill because a handful of voting rights activists jeered him in a committee meeting two years ago.

IL also asked Beshear if he was considering pardons for a number of female domestic violence victims who are incarcerated for killing their abusers — long a goal of the Kentucky Coalition Against Domestic Violence. The governor said he and his administration are going over many applications for pardons now, including those women.

“In eight years we have received (approximately) 5,000 applications for pardons,” said Beshear. “And we’re going through them all right now. I haven’t made any decisions yet, but I feel like I owe it to all of those people to look through their cases and then try to make a decision. I also have the ones that the (formerly named) Kentucky Domestic Violence Association has sent over of women who – in a domestic violence situation – ended up killing their husbands, so I’m taking a look at that, too.”

Joe Sonka

Joe Sonka

Joe Sonka is a staff writer at Insider Louisville focusing on government, politics, education and public safety. He is a former news editor and staff writer at LEO Weekly and has also freelanced for The Nation and ThinkProgress. He has won first place awards from the Louisville Metro chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists in the categories of Health Reporting, Enterprise Reporting, Government/Politics, Minority/Women’s Affairs Reporting, Continuing Coverage and Best Blog. Email him at [email protected]