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Why this governor just restored voting rights to most felons

Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear listens to a reporter’s question during a Nov. 17 news conference. (Timothy D. Easley/AP)

Convicted felons had been permanently barred from voting in Kentucky. Until today.

Gov. Steve Beshear (D) signed an executive order Tuesday that will automatically restore the right to vote and hold public office for the majority of the state’s nonviolent felony offenders.

Under the order, voting rights won’t be restored to those who have been convicted of violent crimes, sex crimes, bribery or treason.  But about 170,000 people with nonviolent convictions could get the right to vote, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, which estimates 220,000 Kentuckians out of prison have been convicted of felonies.

“The right to vote is one of the most intrinsically American privileges, and thousands of Kentuckians are living, working and paying taxes in the state but are denied this basic right,” Beshear said in a statement. “Once an individual has served his or her time and paid all restitution, society expects them to reintegrate into their communities and become law-abiding and productive citizens. A key part of that transition is the right to vote.”

Those currently incarcerated or under probation or parole will automatically have their voting rights restored, as long as they have no pending criminal cases, charges, arrests or outstanding court-ordered restitution. People already out of the criminal justice system have to fill out forms to have their voting rights restored, according to the governor’s office.

Kentucky has one of the strictest voting laws regarding felons, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. Along with three other states, Kentucky doesn’t automatically restore voting rights to felons after they’ve completed their sentence.

[Hillary Clinton wants to allow felons to vote. That could mean a lot in a state like Florida.]

“The old system is unfair,” Beshear said Tuesday, Reuters reported. “We need to be smarter in our criminal justice system. Research shows that ex-felons who vote are less likely to commit new crime and return to prison. That’s because if you vote, you tend to be more engaged in society.”

Critics of policies preventing felons from voting say such restrictions particularly disenfranchise black voters; in Kentucky, one in five African-Americans can’t vote because of past convictions, according to estimates.

[How felon voting policies restrict the black vote]

Others have also noted how short sentences can result in a lifetime of disenfranchisement, such as Mantell Stevens, 36, who pleaded guilty to a felony drug possession charge and served 30 days in jail 15 years ago, the Associated Press reported.

“Being able to participate in democracy and being able to vote for elected officials is so important,” Stevens, who lost his right to vote 15 years ago, told the AP. “I think I’m able to possibly elect some officials that might help better my community.”

Some Republican leaders in the state questioned the legality of the executive order and said legislative action on the matter was more appropriate. Democrats in Kentucky’s statehouse have tried over the past decade to restore voting rights to felons, according to the Courier-Journal:

The House has repeatedly advanced measures on amending the constitution so that felons would receive automatic restoration of rights after their sentence is complete. But the proposal has faced opposition in the Senate, where critics have pushed for a waiting period and want to reduce the types of felons who would be eligible.
Beshear said while he has supported legislation in the past to restore rights, he wanted to let the legislative process play out before he stepped in with an executive action.

The order is one of the last salvos for Beshear, who leaves office next month, and it could be rolled back in the future. Gov.-elect Matt Bevin (R) has previously signaled support for restoring voting rights for some felons.

[Matt Bevin is the new governor of Kentucky. Now what?]

“The executive order will be evaluated during the transition period,” Bevin’s transition team said in a statement to the Courier-Journal.

Previously, felons had to apply to have their rights individually restored by the governor, and prior to 2008, the process included having to pay a fee, submitting an essay and providing character references.

Marriage and family therapist Michael Hiser, 45, told the Courier-Journal he didn’t apply before because the process didn’t seem fair.

“I am now a citizen,” Hiser told the Courier-Journal. “Up until now, I haven’t been a citizen. I’ve been a taxpayer who is only allowed to give money into the system but has no voice.”