Friday, February 22nd, 2013...1:29 pm
Legislator still seeks to restore voting rights of ex-felons
In describing Jesse Crenshaw, the average person could call him a long-time state representative who was first elected to serve the 77th District in 1993.
But for convicted felons who have paid their debt to society, the adjectives used could be determined, persistent, unflagging and resolute.
That’s because for years Crenshaw has introduced a bill in the House that would call for the automatic restoration of voting rights for all felons except those who convicted of “treason, intentional killing, a sex crime or bribery.”
“It is one of the most important rights a person can have,” Crenshaw said. “From a Christian standpoint, it is about redemption.”
There are more than 234,000 Kentuckians with felony convictions, he said, “and most of those are already out of prison. These are people in our society who deserve to be able to vote.”
Last week, HB 70 passed out of the House Elections and Constitutional Amendments Committee with a vote of 6 to 1, with 2 abstentions. Now it is headed for the House floor to be voted on and passed, hopefully. The bill submitted by Crenshaw in 2012 passed the House with a bipartisan vote of 78-18.
“This is the sixth time it has made it to the floor and (was) voted on,” Crenshaw said. Two other times the bill either never made it out of the House committee or it came out but wasn’t called to the floor for a vote.
After passing the House, the bill has a history of evaporating in a Senate committee, never to be heard from again.
At least that has been the Groundhog Day scenario for several legislative sessions. This time around, though, interested parties are hoping a change in the Senate leadership might signal a new day.
“I believe this is the year,” said Tayna Fogle, a member of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a statewide grassroots organization that has lobbied for the bill for years.
Fogle said former Senate President David Williams has been replaced by Robert Stivers, R-Manchester. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, who in past years refused to allow HB 70 out of committee for a vote, is now the Senate Majority Floor Leader.
She hopes those changes in leadership will open a new door.
“If we can get it to the floor of the Senate, I think we have the votes to pass it,” Fogle said. “We’ve just never been able to get it to the floor and then to the people to vote on it.”
The bill is proposing an amendment to Section 145 of the Kentucky Constitution, which denies voting rights for felons without a pardon from the governor to restore those rights. If it were to pass the General Assembly, voters would have to go to the polls to decide whether to maintain the current system that is determined by the governor, or to automatically restore the voting rights of ex-felons.
So far, nothing has worked out very well for ex-felons.
In 2001, the General Assembly tried to help by passing a bill that simplified the process to restoration. But in 2004, Gov. Ernie Fletcher required an essay, three references and approval from prosecutors where the applicant lives and from where the crime was committed. Needless to say, the number of applications and approvals dropped from those of the previous administration because of the new requirements, according to a recently released report by the League of Women Voters of Kentucky.
In 2008, Gov. Steve Beshear eliminated the references hurdle, the $2 fee and the essay. The applications and approvals increased again.
According to the league’s report, “Felony Disenfranchisement in the Commonwealth of Kentucky,” Kentucky is one of only four states that permanently yanks the voting rights of ex-felons. The other three are Florida, Iowa and Virginia. One in 14 Kentuckians can’t vote, and 1 in 5 blacks can’t vote in this state.
One study out of Florida says there is less recidivism for those who have their rights restored, Crenshaw said. “But from a fairness standpoint, we ask people to rehabilitate, to go to work, to pay taxes, and do all these things and then we say, ‘Oh, by the way, you can’t vote.’ ”
Fogle, an ex-felon who has had her rights restored, said, “It made me feel human, that I was a part of the community and had a say in what was going to affect my children and grandchildren.
“I made some bad choices and made some mistakes,” she continued. “But when that sentence is over I am supposed to come back and be restored.”
If HB 70 doesn’t pass the House and Senate, no one doubts that Crenshaw will once again introduce the bill during the next session, just as determined, persistent, unflagging and resolute as ever.
“I’m going to work as hard as I can,” he said. “I don’t have any ability to control more than my hard work to get this done. It is the right thing to do.”