Today in Kentucky, more than 180,000 Americans cannot vote because of an outdated law. Anyone convicted of a felony can never vote again unless the governor individually allows them to do so. It doesn’t matter whether that felony was committed five years ago or 50 years ago, or what that person has done with his life since leaving the prison walls. Kentucky is on the verge of change, but certain politicians are standing in the way.
House Bill 70 would allow voters to decide on a constitutional amendment that would restore voting rights for people with certain criminal convictions who have done their time. The House passed the bill, as it has before. A few lone senators, however, are playing politics and risk scuttling the whole effort by loading the bill with amendments that will make the measure not worth the paper it is written on. The House rightfully rejected that bill, and legislators should now look to House Bill 70 as a way forward.
The Senate bill is a bad deal because it fails at its purported purpose: to end the disenfranchisement of tens of thousands of Kentuckians. A newly released analysis by the nonpartisan Kentucky League of Women Voters estimates that as many as 55 percent of the currently disenfranchised population would stay disenfranchised under the Senate bill and its restrictions. By itself, and depending on how courts treat its language, one provision excluding people with multiple felony convictions would bar over 100,000 people from voting.
The Senate bill is also a bad deal because its approach is clearly not favored by most of Kentucky’s leaders. A bipartisan majority of legislators has supported House Bill 70 for years now. Last month, they were joined by U.S. Sen. Rand Paul and Agriculture Commissioner James Comer. “The House version accomplishes what we want to accomplish,” Comer told the Courier-Journal. “We want to get more people involved in the process and we want to do it right away.”
Paul, Comer, and House Minority Floor Leader Jeff Hoover are part of the wide base that supports a clean, uncomplicated solution to Kentucky’s disenfranchisement law. That base includes law enforcement figures, faith leaders, and politicians of all parties. They recognize that Kentucky’s unnecessarily harsh law makes it an outlier. Only two other states permanently disenfranchise people with felony convictions (Iowa and Florida).
House Bill 70 offers a real opportunity for progress. The pretender bill, put forward by the Senate, does nothing to improve public safety, deter crime, or build communities. Rather, it continues to punish people who are simply trying to live their lives, support their families, and be productive members of their community. By denying these individuals the right to vote, the Senate bill stands in their way.
With the support of the many leaders who have stepped forward, legislators should back a proposal that drops the Senate’s gambits and replaces them with real reform.
TOMAS LOPEZ is counsel for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. The Rev. PATRICK DELAHANTY is the Executive Director of the Catholic Conference of Kentucky.