KET Legislative Coverage

Day 30: Restoring Voting Rights to Felons

by Renee Shaw | 02/20/14 12:27 PM

At the midpoint of this year's 60-day legislative session, the Senate engaged in a lengthy and heated debate over a proposed constitutional amendment to automatically restore voting rights for certain ex-cons.

Senate Republicans added a change to House Bill 70 in committee that would require non-violent felons who've completed their sentences to wait five years before their voting rights are returned. Backers of voting rights restoration criticized the move, saying it guts the original measure.

In the Senate State and Local Government Committee meeting yesterday, Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer (R-Georgetown) explained the amended version of HB 70.

Automatic voting rights restoration is the signature legislative initiative of Rep. Jesse Crenshaw (D-Lexington). He's served in the House since 1993 and will retire from the General Assembly this year. Each time he’s proposed the measure, Crenshaw has wooed Republican co-sponsors and has garnered increasing House support for the idea, but the legislation ultimately stalls in the Senate.

Crenshaw said he is disappointed by the changes made in the Senate committee substitute. In addition to the five-year waiting period for eligible ex-convicts, felons with multiple previous offenses would now be excluded. Supporters of voting rights restoration said the Republican move cuts in half the number of ex-cons who would be eligible from more than 180,000 to fewer than 95,000.

House Minority Floor Leader Jeff Hoover (R-Jamestown) is co-sponsor of the bipartisan HB 70. Hoover indicated that he shares some of Rep. Crenshaw's concerns about the measure, but added the legislation has advanced further than it ever has in previous years.

U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, who came to Frankfort to speak to the committee, recommended the controversial waiting period. He referenced a raft of hot-button issues, including unequal outcomes between whites and people of color in the judicial system and the failed war on drugs.

Louisville civil rights leader Raoul Cunningham said that one in 17 Kentuckians is deprived of his or her voting rights, making the Commonwealth the highest among the nation's disenfranchised states. He also noted that the original House bill was overwhelmingly bipartisan and popular. Last month, it sailed out of the lower chamber, 82-12. Cunningham described the Senate committee substitute as a voter-suppression tactic.

Despite their disappointment, Democrats supported the amended HB 70 and it cleared the State and Local Government Committee without dissent, 11-0.

Measure Moves to the Full Senate
Senators engaged in an even longer debate over HB 70 in the full chamber. Sen. Gerald Neal (D-Louisville) expressed optimism that the Senate-amended form of HB 70 can be reconciled during negotiations between House and Senate members. He said the Senate version creates a new category of punishment that makes no sense.

Senate President Robert Stivers (R-Manchester) was Senate Judiciary chair when HB 70 first came up several years ago. He is concerned about habitual offenders having their voting rights automatically restored and supports the five-year waiting period. Stivers reiterated that former felons could still appeal to the governor for a pardon and get their voting rights restored.

The amended HB 70 cleared the full Senate, 34-4. The bill goes back to the House where the majority will likely refuse to accept the Senate changes. If so, the measure will go to a small group of conferees to hash out a compromise.

Expunging Felony Records
The theme for yesterday could have been restorative justice as the Kentucky House passed a bill that would allow low-level, one-time Kentucky felons to ask the courts to erase - or expunge - their felony records. It also received a spirited debate.

House Bill 64, sponsored by Rep. Darryl Owens (D-Louisville), cleared the chamber yesterday on a 79-21 vote. You can see that debate, along with the latest on a contentious medical malpractice bill, on our website archives.

Watch Legislative Update tonight at 11 p.m. on KET. Follow me on Twitter @ReneeKET for updates throughout the day.