The Richmond Register

October 22, 2013

Not much movement on felon voting rights

By Ronnie Ellis
CNHI News Service

FRANKFORT — There was an air of anticipation preceding Tuesday’s meeting of the Joint Interim Committee on State Government which was to discuss restoring felons’ voting rights and the issue of requiring photo identification for voting in Kentucky.

But when the meeting was over, few minds appeared to have changed from whatever point of view with which they began.

The Democratic-controlled House has several times passed legislation that would automatically restore voting rights for felons convicted of non-violent or non-sexual crimes, but the legislation never got anywhere in the Republican-controlled Senate.

However, advocates have gotten their hopes up of late because Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul has expressed support for the idea, albeit with a mandatory waiting period. Under the Kentucky Constitution, felons must apply to the governor to have rights restored, including voting rights.

Sen. Gerald Neal, D-Louisville, has pre-filed a bill identical to one supported in the past by Rep. Jesse Crenshaw, D-Lexington. But after a presentation by Myrna Perez, Director of the Voting Rights and Elections Project at the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law, Republicans on the committee seemed unpersuaded.

Perez said Kentucky is one of three states that permanently prohibit voting by felons unless the governor approves a partial pardon. In 39 other states, voting rights are automatically restored after felons have “paid their debt to society” by serving sentences and completing probation periods. Two states, Maine and Vermont, allow incarcerated prisoners to vote.

As in the rest of the nation, blacks represent a disproportionate percentage of felons without voting rights in Kentucky. One in five blacks in Kentucky is barred from voting because of a felony conviction.

Perez said multiple studies have shown restoring voting rights actually reduces the likelihood of another conviction after a prisoner has been released.

A Bluegrass Poll indicates that 51 percent of Kentuckians would support a constitutional amendment to restore felons’ rights after they serve their sentences, and 38 percent oppose the idea.

Tanya Fogle, a former felon, exhorted the committee to support Neal’s legislation.

“I made a mistake, but I’m not a mistake and I can add to this community,” Fogle said. “I love you because I know you’re going to do the right thing. Do the right thing! Do the right thing!”

That presentation was followed by one from Hans von Spakovsky of the Heritage Foundation who wants Kentucky to require voter identification at the polls.

Kentucky law allows but does not require precinct officers to ask for photo identification, but it does not have to be a government-issued I.D. and is seldom invoked.

Many critics of such laws – generally supported by Republicans and opposed by Democrats – say they are designed to suppress voting by minorities and the poor.

But Spakovsky cited numerous statistics from states that have passed such laws indicating minority voting percentages actually increased after passage of ID laws. In most instances, however, the increased minority voting he cited came in 2008 when Barack Obama was the first black candidate nominated for president by either of the two major parties.

To counter that statistic, Spakovsky cited similar increased minority voting in 2010 when Republicans won control of the U.S. House of Representatives. And, he cited multiple court cases which have upheld such laws.

Spakovsky also pointed out how commonly photo identification is required to board airplanes or enter secure buildings. He was joined by James Lewis, Leslie County Clerk and Elections Committee Chair for the Kentucky County Clerk Association.

In response to Democratic members’ questions, Lewis said vote hauling – the practice of paying workers to transport voters to the polls – was a bigger source of vote fraud in Kentucky than unqualified, unregistered voters posing as someone else.

As for that sort of voter fraud, Lewis said, “I do not recall such a case in 20 years, well since 1988.”

Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, said he sees voter fraud as a problem, noting he’d supported voter photo identification legislation in the past and said he sees the two pieces of legislation – restoration of voting rights and photo identification – as “inextricably linked.”

In addition to bringing calls of “No!” from the crowd, which was there largely in support of restoring felons voting rights, the Senate Majority Floor Leader’s statement may have indicated the likely position of the Republican Senate – regardless of the calls for change from Paul.

Paul is mulling a run for president in 2016 and has been actively engaged in outreach efforts to minority groups in an effort to broaden his appeal.

Ronnie Ellis writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at rellis@cnhi.com. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.