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Kentucky Governor’s Executive Order Restores Voting Rights for Felons

by David M. Reutter

Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear issued an executive order that restored the voting rights of over 140,000 convicted felons. The order was signed just days after Beshear was sworn in in December 2019, and it upheld a campaign promise.

“My faith teaches me to treat others with dignity and respect. My faith also teaches forgiveness,” Beshears said during his inaugural speech. Those reasons are why he signed “an executive order restoring voting rights to over a hundred thousand men and women who have done wrong in the past but are doing right now. They deserve to participate in our great democracy.”

This is not the first time an executive order has been signed to restore Kentuckians’ voting rights. Just before he left office in 2015, Beshear’s father, former Gov. Steve Beshear, issued an order restoring voting rights to people who had felony convictions that were not classified as “violent offenses,” sexual crimes or election-related bribery.

That order lasted only a few days. Just days after succeeding Steve Beshear, Governor Matt Bevin suspended the order. “While I have been a vocal supporter of the restoration of rights, it is an issue that must be addressed through the legislature and by the will of the people,” Bevin said at the time.

The legislature made an effort in 2014 to change the Kentucky Constitution, disenfranchises persons with felony records for life. The Democratic-led House and Republican-led Senate each passed bills, but they could not agree on final language.

That leaves felons seeking reinstatement via a reprieve from the governor after completion of their prison sentence, parole, or probation. The success rate for that process varies by governor. Steve Beshear reinstated 9,500 people over his two terms, but Bevin only approved 950 during his term, creating a backlog of 1,459 requests.

The U.S. Sentencing Project estimated in 2016 that about 242,000 Kentuckians are banned from voting, which is more than 9 percent of the voting-age population. That report also found that the proportion of Kentucky African-Americans who were disenfranchised ballooned from 3 percent in 1980 to 26 percent in 2016.

Beshear’s order is a progressive one, but until the Kentucky Constitution is revised, the right of felons to vote hinges on the views and agenda of the person holding the office of governor. 



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