FRANKFORT - Rep. Jesse Crenshaw, D-Lexington, hopes this is the year he finally sees passage of a constitutional amendment to allow felons who’ve paid their debt to society to have their voting rights automatically restored.
Crenshaw, who is retiring from the General Assembly after this year, has pushed the bill for years. He’s seen it pass the Democratic controlled House seven times in seven years. Then each time he’s seen it die in the Republican controlled Senate without a vote.
On Tuesday, the House Committee on Elections, Constitutional Amendments and Intergovernmental Affairs, again passed Crenshaw’s latest attempt without a single no vote — although Rep. Joe Fischer, R-Ft. Thomas passed.
House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, is co-sponsoring the bill with Crenshaw this time and Hoover urged its passage Tuesday, saying, “It’s a matter of fairness.”
“I think we are a forgiving society,” Hoover said, adding he’s supported Crenshaw’s previous bills. “When folks have carried out what the courts have imposed on them, I think it’s just a matter of fairness.”
Republicans have traditionally opposed such measures, fearing the ex-felon population would be more likely to vote Democratic. Even Hoover, alluded to that perception among his party, but said it doesn’t matter because “basic fairness” argues for the measure.
Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who has presidential aspirations and has openly sought to broaden his appeal to constituencies usually seen as unsympathetic to Republican ideology, also supports the move.
Less than two hours after the House committee’s vote, Paul issued a statement applauding the move.
“I applaud the (committee) for passing House Bill 70,” said Paul in the statement. “A government of, by and for the people is only possible with a free right to vote. I am committed to securing this right for the people of the commonwealth.”
Paul went on to urge passage by the House — but the House has passed the measure seven times previously. It’s in the Republican Senate where Paul’s influence might be crucial. State Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, has previously said he wants to link passage of Crenshaw’s measure with one to require voters to have photo identification in order to vote.
Crenshaw said he’s hopeful Paul will influence Republican state senators to support his measure, independently of other issues.
“I hope (Paul) would in fact speak with those in the Senate and urge them to call it for a vote, both in committee and on the floor,” Crenshaw said. “But I look with optimism toward the Senate.”
Crenshaw said the bill would affect between 129,000 and 180,000 Kentuckians who have been convicted of non-violent felonies and completed their sentences, probation and restitution requirements. His amendment, if approved by voters, would automatically restore voting rights to those who complete sentences for all but four types of felonies.
Anyone convicted of intentional murder, rape, sodomy or a sex offense with minors would not be automatically eligible.
Kentucky remains one of three states which do not automatically restore such voting rights. The others are Florida and Iowa. Virginia’s governor recently changed that state’s procedure by executive order to allow automatic restoration.
Under Kentucky’s current constitution, ex-felons may apply to the governor who can restore voting rights.
Crenshaw’s measure is supported by a variety of groups including the League of Women Voters and the Catholic Conference of Kentucky.
Father Patrick Delahanty of the Catholic Conference said the current system of appeal to the governor is “arbitrary” which allows restoration of voting rights “for some felons but not for others and by some governors but not by others.”