A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Dave Newton: Giving back voting rights to former felons is historic step forward, thanks to Beshear

On December 12, Governor Andy Beshear helped Kentucky take a historic step forward. With the twirl of a pen, 140,000 previously disenfranchised members of our Commonwealth were re-empowered with the right to vote. Years of conversations, meetings, phone calls, and work by people with felonies in their past created the grassroots support needed to bring us to this moment. 

Over a hundred of us attended and cheered as the governor signed the order and stated his support for a constitutional amendment to restore voting rights. There is much to be lauded about this act, including the explicit exclusion of any requirement that fines and fees be paid to qualify for restoration. 140,000 is truly a huge number, and a step towards helping disenfranchised people regain a sense of normalcy within society. 

Governor Andy Beshear

This is what a healthy democracy is about – allowing people who have a stake in the decisions made by elected officials to have a voice in deciding who those officials are. It’s fundamental to who we are as a state and a nation.

We, the Kentucky Voter Rights Restoration Coalition, are a network of 30+ similarly minded community groups working to ensure that every person who is denied the right to vote has that right restored. We believe that once a person has served their time, they have the right to re-engage with society. 

This includes the right to participate in selecting those who will represent them in the halls of government. We must recognize that disenfranchisement is not liberal or conservative, old or young, male or female, or any shade of color, and impacts us all.

Governor Beshear heard our voices and acted swiftly. We applaud and celebrate the governor’s actions, but are saddened that hundreds of thousands of fellow Kentuckians remain disenfranchised. The inclusion of language referencing “violent” and “non-violent” crimes has a muddling effect that was not necessary. Also, the lack of clarity about the process of restoration worries us that not all who qualify for restoration will be made whole again. 

It is now our responsibility to carry the torch forward and impress on the Kentucky House and Senate the need for a constitutional amendment. This task spans the entire breadth of our commonwealth and is enshrined in the Commonwealth’s motto: “United We Stand / Divided We Fall.” 

Odds are that you admire or interact with people on a daily basis who don’t have the right to vote. Voting is not something that people should have to fight for alone and it is not something that should be denied by a constant moving maze of paperwork. Voter restoration should be clear, concise, and automatically guaranteed by our state constitution.

The people have spoken. Our new governor listened and took an important first step. It’s now time for our leaders to hear the overwhelming will of Kentuckians and complete the restoration of voting rights for all of us.

David Newton is democracy organizer for Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.

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