The Capitol building in Frankfort | Photo by Olivia Krauth

Kentucky is one of two remaining states that permanently ban felons from voting unless they have been granted a gubernatorial pardon, but a recent survey by a national polling firm suggests that a large majority of the state wants to change that policy.

A December survey of 625 Kentuckians by Mason-Dixon Polling found that 66 percent of respondents favored the automatic restoration of voting rights for felons who have completed their sentences, while only 32 percent opposed such a change.

The survey question was commissioned by the League of Women Voters of Kentucky, which supports the automatic restoration of voting rights and points to the fact that Kentucky has one of the highest felon disenfranchisement rates in the country.

“Over 312,000 Kentucky citizens cannot vote because of felony convictions,” stated Wanda Lynch, president of the League of Women Voters of Kentucky. “We are pleased to see that a growing majority of Kentuckians agree with the League that voting rights should be restored to persons convicted of felony offenses once they have fully completed their sentencing.”

The 312,000 figure is from a report in 2016 by the Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group working to reduce the country’s incarceration rate and racial disparities in the criminal justice system.

The 2016 report found that over 9 percent of Kentuckians are ineligible to vote because of a felony conviction, with 78 percent of these 312,046 individuals having already completed their sentences. That disenfranchisement rate is the third-highest in the country.

The Sentencing Project report also found that African-Americans in Kentucky have the highest disenfranchisement rate in the country at 26.2 percent, which is three and a half times the national average and 4.3 percent highest than the next-highest state.

A graphic from the League of Women Voters of Kentucky citing statistics from a 2016 report by the Sentencing Project

To automatically restore the voting rights of felons who have completed their sentences, Kentucky would have to pass a constitutional amendment, which requires the vote of 60 percent of both the state House and Senate and then the approval of voters in a state referendum in the next even-numbered year.

Along with Kentucky and Iowa, Florida was one of the last states to permanently strip felons of voting rights, until 64 percent of voters approved a statewide referendum last November to amend its constitution. Florida now automatically restores voting rights once felons have completed their sentences, except for those convicted of murder or sex crimes.

Identical bills have been filed in both the House and Senate during the current session of the Kentucky General Assembly that would amend the state constitution in the same way that Florida did last year. House Bill 91 — sponsored by Rep. George Brown, D-Lexington, and Rep. Charles Booker, D-Louisville — and Senate Bill 92, filed by Sen. Morgan McGarvey, D-Louisville, would also strike the constitution’s reference to prohibiting “idiots and insane persons” from voting.

Sen. Gerald Neal, D-Louisville, has also filed two bills that would amend the constitution to restore the voting rights of felons, except those convicted of violent crimes, sex crimes and crimes against children.

Democrats have tried to pass similar constitutional amendments to restore the voting rights of former felons over the past decade, but have continually been stymied in the Republican-dominated Senate. Neal and other Democrats have expressed an opinion that Republicans have blocked the amendment out of the belief that most of them would be more likely to vote for Democratic candidates.

Former Gov. Steve Beshear issued an executive order just before leaving office in 2015 that would have automatically restored the voting rights of over 100,000 felons who had completed their sentences and not been convicted of violent crimes, sex crimes, bribery or treason, but Gov. Matt Bevin immediately rescinded that order when he took office.

The General Assembly passed legislation in 2016 to authorize the expungement of certain low-level Class D felonies after a period of five years and a $500 fee — which would restore their right to vote — though less than 2,000 have been able to do so. Over 20 Democratic members of the House have sponsored a bill in the current session that would lower that expungement fee to $200.

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]