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Monday, February 06, 2012

Kentucky Should Come Out Of The Dark Ages And Do What It MUST To Restore Felon Voting Rights.


Kentucky weighs restoring voting rights to felons
State is one of four that bars people with records from polls
Written by Andrew Wolfson

Restaurant manager Jason Marvin Smith of Elizabethtown said he accepts full responsibility for a felony that landed him on probation as an 18-year-old for possessing a half-ounce of marijuana while driving his car with an improperly stowed gun.

But what riles him is that after completing his probation, he still could not vote.

“I was in civil purgatory,” said Smith, now 32, who lost his voting rights for years before a governor’s pardon restored them last year.

Kentucky is one of only four states that permanently bar all felons from the polls — unless they get a pardon from the governor. Smith and others are fighting to change that.

For five straight years the Kentucky House of Representatives has passed a bill that would let voters decide whether to amend the state constitution so that felons convicted of all but the most serious crimes would automatically have their voting rights restored when they complete probation or parole or serve out their sentence.

The League of Women Voters of Kentucky estimated in a 2006 report that about 168,000 people would be affected.

Proponents, including the league, Catholic Conference of Kentucky and the NAACP, say that voting is the most fundamental expression of citizenship and that felons who have paid their dues should not be permanently disenfranchised.

They also say Kentucky’s restrictions disproportionately disenfranchise blacks and are a vestige of Jim Crow laws intended to keep African Americans from voting.

According to league figures, the most recent available, nearly one in four African Americans is banned from Kentucky’s polls because of those restrictions, compared with one of every 17 Kentuckians overall.

Republicans in Kentucky’s state Senate have killed HB 70 without a hearing for five years running. And supporters of the legislation, including the NAACP and Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, say the reason is obvious: Most who have been convicted of felonies are poor, and many are black, and they would likely vote for Democrats.

“It is purely political on the behalf of Republicans who oppose this,” said Commonwealth’s Attorney Dave Stengel of Jefferson County, one of the state’s few prosecutors who support automatically restoring voting rights.

But Republican Sen. Damon Thayer, chairman of the Senate State and Local Government Committee, where the legislation has died the past three sessions, said his opposition has “absolutely nothing to do with politics.”

Thayer, of Georgetown, a former vice chairman of the state Republican Party, said the greater impact on blacks doesn’t concern him.

“A felon is a felon, regardless of race,” he said, adding that there is no need to change Kentucky’s constitution because felons may already petition the governor to restore their voting rights.

But supporters of automatically restoring felon voter rights said the right to vote should not rest on the whim of governors, who may drastically change the rules with each new administration.

For example, 97 percent of applicants who asked Democratic Gov. Paul Patton for partial pardons got them, but fewer than 50 percent were granted under Republican Gov. Ernie Fletcher, who made ex-felons write an essay explaining why they deserved to have their rights restored and submit three letters of reference.

In Fletcher’s last year, only one-third of 583 applications were approved.

In fact, Fletcher restored the rights of only 275 people per year on average, compared with 1,421 annually for Gov. Steve Beshear. In Beshear’s first term, he approved 83 percent of applications, according to the Corrections Department.
Campaign issue

Voting rights for felons has been a hot issue during this year’s Republican presidential campaign.

Showing inmates in orange jumpsuits, supporters of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney ran one ad assailing opponent Rick Santorum for supporting the right of felons to vote; Santorum denounced the ad as misleading for suggesting he favored letting inmates vote while behind bars.

Only two states, Maine and Vermont, allow prisoners to vote. Thirty-nine, however, automatically restore felons’ voting rights after they get out of prison, either immediately, as in Indiana, or after they complete parole.

Conservatives say that by committing a crime, felons have shown they are not responsible enough to participate in voting and self-government.

“If you aren’t willing to follow the law yourself, then you can’t demand a role in making the law for everyone else, which is what you do when you vote,” said Roger Clegg, chief executive and general counsel for the Center for Equal Opportunity in Falls Creek, Va., which bills itself as the nation’s only conservative think tank devoted to issues of race and ethnicity.

Clegg, a deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, said the right to vote should be restored to felons carefully, on a case-by-case basis after a person has shown that he has “really turned over a new leaf, not automatically on the day someone walks out of prison.”

That view is echoed by Tim Coleman, president of the Kentucky Commonwealth’s Attorneys Association, elected prosecutor for Butler, Edmonson, Hancock and Ohio counties.

“A felony is a serious offense, and there should be some stigma to it,” Coleman said.

Clegg’s group acknowledges that the laws have a disproportionate effect on “some racial groups” but says it’s only because “at any point in time, there are always going to be some groups that commit more crimes than others.”

But Raoul Cunningham, president of the Louisville branch of the NAACP, says that African Americans have been disproportionately punished in the war on drugs — and that injustice is compounded by Kentucky’s harsh voting law.

A League of Women Voters report issued in 2007 found that Kentucky has the highest rate of disenfranchisement for blacks in the country — triple the national rate. The report included felons in prison, which accounted for just 10 percent of the total.

Before the Civil War, when Kentucky’s constitution allowed only free white males to vote, it did not bar former felons from the polls. That provision wasn’t added until Kentucky adopted its fourth and current constitution, in 1891.

Smith, the Elizabethtown restaurant manager, who is white, said if felons are required to pay taxes upon their release from prison, they should be allowed to vote.

While a number of other countries, including the United Kingdom and Russia, deny voting rights to inmates while they are in prison, only the United States disenfranchises felons who have completed their sentences or were never imprisoned, scholars say.

Stengel said he supports automatic restoration of voting rights in part because “it is a lot easier to offend if you are an outsider.

“We say we believe in rehabilitation,” he said. “If we don’t give back the right to vote, we are liars.”

Chris Uggen and Jeff Manza, co-authors of “Locked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy,” say their research shows that doing so would have political consequences.

For example, they found that if felons had the right to vote, it would have tipped the 2000 presidential election to Al Gore over George W. Bush and given Democrats victories in seven U.S. Senate races since 1972, including the 1984 contest in which Mitch McConnell narrowly defeated Democratic incumbent Walter “Dee” Huddleston.

But the professors say that it is a game changer only in close Republican victories in states with strict laws such as Kentucky.

A team of University of Louisville justice administration professors who surveyed disenfranchised felons in Kentucky in 2008, giving them sample ballots, found that they skewed Democratic, 57-24.

But the professors found that even if they had all voted, John McCain would have still prevailed over Barack Obama in the state’s presidential race that year and McConnell still would have retained his U.S. Senate seat against Democrat Bruce Lunsford.

The professors said in a report published in Probation Journal that “political concerns” about former felons having “significant, sizable effects on election outcomes are unfounded” and that there is “no legitimate reason to continue to deny the vote to this population.”
Outlook uncertain

HB 70 was approved 7-1 by the House elections committee on Jan. 24. The full House, which approved similar legislation 77-21 last year, likely will take it up soon, said its sponsor, Rep. Jesse Crenshaw, D-Lexington. Beshear supports the bill, said spokeswoman Kerri Richardson.

Senate President David Williams declined to respond to requests for comment on the issue, other than to say through a spokeswoman that it would be assigned this year to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

In his last public comment on it, in 2007, Williams said he thought there was more sympathy for “victims than criminals” in the General Assembly.

In an interview, the lead author of the U of L study, Gennaro F. Vito, said he cannot understand opposing something that allows more people to vote.

“To me, this is incredibly backward,” he said. “What are they afraid of? Democracy?”

Editor's note: BARRED FROM VOTING

Estimated number of felons and ex-felons barred from voting in the United States

Total: 5.3 million
Black: 2 million

Source: Prof. Chris Uggen, University of Minnesota; Prof. Jeff Manza, New York University, co-authors, “Locked Out: Felon Disenfranchisement and American Democracy”

Estimated number of felons and ex-felons barred from voting in Kentucky

In prison or jail: 18,653
On parole: 9,609
On probation: 29,311
Completed sentence, probation and parole: 128,775
Total: 186,348

Source: League of Women Voters 2006 report; www.kftc.org/our-work/restoration/lwvreport

Disenfranchisement Rates

Kentucky

All: 5.97%
Blacks: 23.7%
United States:
Total: 2.42%
Blacks: 8.25%
Source: League of Women Voters 2006 report
http://www.kftc.org/our-work/restoration/lwvreport

Source: Kentucky Constitution, Section 145, provides:

The following persons … shall not have the right to vote:

1. Persons convicted of treason, felony or bribery in an election, or of a high misdemeanor as determined by the General Assembly. Those excluded may be restored to their civil rights by executive pardon.
2. Persons who, at the time of the election, are in confinement under the judgment of a court for some penal offense.
3. Idiots and insane persons.

Please Note: proposed Constitutional amendment would allow voters to consider an amendment that would allow people convicted of a felony other than treason, intentional killing, a sex crime or bribery the right to vote after expiration of probation, final discharge from parole or maximum expiration of their sentence.

How to get back voting rights

An application to restore civil rights may be obtained by writing to:
Department of Corrections, Division of Probation and Parole, P.O. Box 2400, Frankfort, KY 40602-2400 Attn: Restoration of Civil Rights, or online at:
http://justice.ky.gov/NR/rdonlyres/7845144F-9A85-4D61-BE3A-3C56F6D57B08/0/Restoration_of_Civil_Rights.pdf
Expect it to take two months for processing. If approved, the applicant will get a certificate in the mail stating his right to vote has been restored, along with a voter registration card. When the card is filled out and sent to the clerk where the applicant lives, he will be able to vote.
Source: League of Women Voters

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