LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) — On the heels of Florida voters deciding to reinstate voting rights to felons that have served their sentences, Kentucky could soon face a similar debate with new legislation expected to be filed this week.
Democratic Sen. Morgan McGarvey, of Louisville, expects to pre-file a bill that would restore voting rights to convicted felons once their sentence, including probation and parole, is complete.
"When they have a job and they're living and working in our community, they need a voice in that community," McGarvey said. "That voice comes at the ballot box.”
With the passage of Florida’s bill, Kentucky and Iowa became the only states in the country that do not restore voting rights in some manner at the completion of a sentence. In Kentucky, felons can only have the right restored via an executive pardon from Governor Matt Bevin.
“Unfortunately when Florida did that, they made us an outlier,” McGarvey said. “We're one of the very few states that has such hurdles to allowing everyone to vote.”
The only conviction that would be excluded from McGarvey’s measure is voter fraud.
“When people have made a mistake, and they go to prison and they pay their debt to society, when they come out, they’ve paid that debt,” he said.
Just over nine percent of, or a little over 300,000, people can’t vote in Kentucky because of previous felony convictions according to a 2016 study from The Sentencing Project.
But Florida’s vote to change its law was hotly contested, and much of the same is expected in the Commonwealth.
“At first it was a little bit of shock but not too much shock because of the Florida bill,” said Katherine Nichols, upon first hearing about the plan for Kentucky.
Nichols is the current executive director of Kentuckians Voice of Crime Victims. Her brother, Jim Duckett, was murdered in his Shelbyville home in 2008. The case remains unsolved.
“When you have a crime committed against you, your whole outlook on life changes, your safety, your security,” she said.
Nichols said she and her organization are strongly opposed to the measure for all people with felony convictions to have their voting rights restored, particularly those charged with violent crimes.
“At the least, you have to go case by case,” she said. “You can't just classify, let’s say, a (class) D felon be able to vote.”
Nichols argues that with recent reforms, felons often don’t serve sentences that are initially assigned in court. She also says the measure could have political motivations as well.
“Is a felon going to vote for a politician that says ‘let’s punish these people?’ Or is he going to vote for a person that says ‘hey, he made a mistake?'” Nichols said.
But McGarvey says no one can know for sure how someone will vote.
“We can't know what people's motivations are or how they're going to vote once they've been given the right to vote,” he said.
In 2015, outgoing Governor Steve Beshear, a Democrat, issued an executive order that restored voting rights to felons that were convicted of non-violent offenses. Soon after taking office, Bevin rescinded that order saying that the change required a constitutional amendment.
McGarvey believes even that requirement shouldn’t stall the measure in the legislature.
“I think this is one where you see Democrats and Republicans working together,” he said.
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