On its face, Mr. Beshear’s executive order is race-blind. But the Kentuckians it affects are disproportionately African Americans — so much so that an estimated quarter of the state’s voting-age blacks are disqualified from voting, including roughly a third of voting-age black men. That is disenfranchisement on a scale so epic that it makes a mockery of democracy.
More than 5 million American adults remain unable to vote, mainly felons still serving their sentences or ex-convicts who committed violent crimes. Still, the tide has turned on granting voting rights to most former felons who serve their time and return to society. Last year, Florida voters, by a 2-to-1 margin, restored voting rights to perhaps 1 million ex-convicts, though even after the referendum Republican officeholders have tried to block as many people as they could from the voting booth. In Virginia, former governor Terry McAuliffe and his successor, incumbent Gov. Ralph Northam, both Democrats, have extended voting rights to nearly 200,000 previously disenfranchised former felons, all since early 2016. That’s enormous progress, although the state’s constitution retains a provision requiring permanent disenfranchisement without the intervention of the executive.
In Kentucky, Mr. Beshear’s father, former governor Steve Beshear, issued a similar order in 2015 only to see it rescinded weeks later by the man who succeeded him in office, Republican Matt Bevin. The younger Mr. Beshear defeated Mr. Bevin last month; by his decree, he ensures that his father’s wish will now be fulfilled. Better late than never.
Only in Iowa does it remain the case that voting rights continue to be permanently withheld from former felons, who, if they wish for their restoration, must appeal to the governor through a cumbersome process. The Republican governor, Kim Reynolds, has insisted that only a constitutional amendment will suffice to reenfranchise tens of thousands of residents who have paid their debts to society but remain diminished and less than fully empowered citizens.
The huge populations of voteless citizens are partly a byproduct of harsh sentencing laws and mass incarceration that swept the country in recent decades. In Kentucky, just 3 percent of black adults disenfranchised by a felony were barred from voting in 1980; by 2016, it was 26 percent, according to the Sentencing Project, which advocates the restoration of voting rights.
In many states, politicians of both parties have stressed the importance of reintegrating former inmates into society. An array of programs is in place practically everywhere to encourage that. But without also restoring voting rights, ex-convicts can never take their place fully as citizens.