By ALEC HUDSON – STAFF WRITER
Are we a forgiving society?
Many would argue that we are: for American society is one of countless stories of dispossessed people committing errors of judgment that lead them through hardship only to redeem themselves through hard work or good deeds. But this forgiveness has its limits in our state.
For Kentucky remains one of a handful of states that practices what is known as “felony disenfranchisement.” This means that all those who commit a felony are barred from voting permanently unless they receive a special state pardon.
This disenfranchisement includes felons currently incarcerated, violent felons, sex offenders, and, most importantly, former felons who served their time.
While there remain states that keep violent and sexual felons off of voter rolls, only the four states of Kentucky, Iowa, Florida, and Virginia continue to keep those who have paid their debt to society out of the political process.
Even those who commit what are known as Class D felonies, which carry fewer than 5 years in prison, are barred from the most fundamental act of a democratic society.
How is this acceptable?
To some like the Heritage Foundation, it is necessary. They consider felons people who have broken the social contract. Their actions thus must have consequences that must haunt them for the rest of their lives due to this social breach.
But this goes against many fundamental values of America’s democratic culture: the idea that people who served their time and who pay taxes aren’t allowed to vote due to felony convictions goes against the famous motto from the American Revolution, “No taxation without representation.” Even our Senator Rand Paul has called for the restoration of voting rights, stating that all people are capable of making a mistake.
For Kentucky, this issue matters because it doesn’t just affect a small populous.
According to the grassroots organization Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, which has advocated for restoring voting rights to former felons for years, “An estimated 243,842 Kentuckians with felony convictions were barred from voting in our state in 2010, including 180,984 who have completed their full sentences. Approximately 74% of disenfranchised Kentuckians have fully completed their sentence.”
That means that out of a population of around 4 million, over five percent of residents can never vote.
The problem with promoting the cause of restoring voting rights is that people do not see the mass benefits of allowing former felons to vote. To some it may seem like nothing more than a nice gesture, but it may directly affect them.
What those people may not realize is that, once again according to Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, voting decreases crime rates as those who engage in their institutions of local, state, and national government are more likely to contribute in a positive way to society.
While not all former felons may become like the “House of Cards” upstart Congressman Peter Russo, each one is a citizen who should be able to learn from their mistakes and partake in the democratic process.
Further, voter disenfranchisement also disproportionately affects ethnic minorities and the poor, with one in five black adults unable to vote due to felony charges on their records.
There is hope for former felons in the form of new legislation HB70/SB15, which would restore voting rights to former felons who have served their time and who have not committed crimes of treason, murder, sexual offenses, and election bribery.
But this year, as the bill has progressed through the legislature, State Senator Damon Thayer (R-Georgetown) initiated a change to the legislation that would exclude over half of those who would be eligible to vote, a change that very well may kill the bill for this legislative session. The Democrats will most likely not support the changed version.
This setback is disheartening to those who have sought for years to reestablish the fundamental right to the democratic process for former nonviolent felons. It comes off as a lack of empathy for those who are trying to legitimately work to correct their mistakes.
It seems odd that there are still those who wish to maintain a political status quo that excludes thousands from the democratic process due to past mistakes.
But even still it is imperative that our Commonwealth live up to the principles of democracy and ensure that all citizens, including those who have made mistakes, are part of our electoral process.