Gov. Steve Beshear
Gov. Steve Beshear

Gov. Steve Beshear signed an executive order on Tuesday that will automatically restore the right to vote and hold public office for felons who have completed their sentences, excluding those who were convicted of violent or sex crimes, bribery or treason.

“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,” said Beshear in a release, just before announcing his move at a press conference in Frankfort. “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 was one of only four states that did not automatically restore the voting rights of felons after the final discharge of their sentence — whose numbers in the state are estimated to be 181,000, with most of those convicted of nonviolent crimes. Though legislation amending Kentucky’s constitution to restore the voting rights of nonviolent felons (HB 70) has easily passed the state House in recent years, it was continually blocked in the state Senate — with Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, vowing to continue blocking it because he was once jeered by a handful of voting rights activists in a committee meeting.

Beshear’s press release noted that while he consistently supported this legislative effort and wanted to see that process played out, he is signing this executive order with only two weeks left in his term, adding that he wanted to wait until the November election “so as to not politicize the issue during the campaign.”

According to the release, under the executive order “the Department of Corrections (DOC) will verify prior to issuing a restoration of civil rights that there are no pending criminal cases, charges or arrests, or outstanding court-ordered restitution. Individuals meeting those criteria will be granted automatic restoration and a certificate of Restoration of Civil Rights will be issued…. Individuals who have already left the correctional system may pick up a restoration of rights form at any Probation and Parole office, or by contacting the Department of Corrections at 502-782-2248 or online at corrections.ky.gov, and return it to the address listed. DOC will verify whether they meet the criteria set out in the executive order. Offenders who do will have their voting rights restored ‘without undue delay’ and receive a certificate of Restoration of Civil Rights in the mail.”

“This approach strikes an effective balance between the need to re-enfranchise thousands of Kentuckians who have paid their debt to society, and the recognition that there are some crimes of such a nature that they require a more deliberative review,” said Beshear.

Groups who had long advocated for automatic restoration of voting rights in Kentucky cheered Beshear’s move.

“The ACLU-KY applauds Gov. Beshear for taking an important step toward breaking down barriers to ballot boxes in Kentucky,” said Michael Aldridge, executive director of the ACLU of Kentucky. “We know the Commonwealth’s disenfranchisement policies, some of the harshest in the country, have negatively impacted families and communities, especially those of color, by reducing their collective political voice. Studies have shown that individuals who vote are more likely to give to charity, volunteer, attend school board meetings, serve on juries and are more actively involved in their communities.”

“Today’s order transforms the process for restoring voting rights in Kentucky and makes it accessible to thousands of Kentucky citizens, some of whom have waited many years for this,” said Tomas Lopez, counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law, one of the national voting rights leaders. “Everyone eligible should act now to take advantage of this important reform.”

Beshear said during his press conference that he notified the general counsel for incoming Gov. Matt Bevin’s transition team about his executive action, but did not share any feedback he received. Bevin’s spokeswoman did not immediately respond to an inquiry.

Beshear also called for the passage of the same constitutional amendment restoring voting rights that has failed in the past, saying it would make such reforms permanent, whereas his executive order could be reversed by another governor. Bevin said during his gubernatorial campaign that he fully supported such a constitutional amendment to restore voting rights.

State House Republican Floor Leader Jeff Hoover immediately issued a statement saying that while he was a co-sponsor of HB 70, he opposes Beshear’s executive order and believes that it is illegal.

“My issue with today’s action is not about the restoration of those rights, but the fact once again this Governor has chosen to usurp the authority of the Kentucky General Assembly through executive order,” wrote Hoover. “This Governor has done that with implementation of Obamacare in Kentucky, and by artificially raising of the minimum wage on state and local agencies which puts additional strains on their already tight budgets. It should be the role of the legislature, not one person, which should address these issues through legislative debate. Furthermore I question the legality of the Governor’s action today, as the ability to restore voting rights for convicted felons can only be done through amending Kentucky’s Constitution… Once again this is a prime example of this Governor following in the footsteps of President Obama and putting his own agenda above the people of Kentucky and the elected legislators who serve them.”

Jessica Ditto, the spokeswoman of Bevin’s transition team, sent the following statement to Insider Louisville, indicating that he is reviewing the details of Beshear’s executive order:

“Governor-Elect Bevin has said many times that the restoration of voting rights for certain offenders is the right thing to do. We were notified of the Executive Order by Governor Beshear’s staff only a few minutes before the announcement and were not provided a copy of the Executive Order until after the press conference. The Executive Order will be evaluated during the transition period.”

Asked whether the voting rights of any former felon that are restored over the next two weeks can be taken away if Bevin decides to rescind the the executive order, Beshear spokesman Terry Sebastian told IL that “absent another qualifying event (another felony conviction), those rights cannot be rescinded.”

Story updated with additional reporting as information became available.

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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]