One of every thirteen African-Americans are already disenfranchised, and it’s not because of voter ID laws, voter purges or cut-offs to early voting but because they’re caught up in the criminal justice system. According to a new study released this summer by the Sentencing Project, in 2010, 5.85 million otherwise eligible voters were disenfranchised because they’re current or former felons. Of these, a full 75 percent were already out on parole or probation or had already completed their complete sentence. Nationwide, nearly 8 percent of African-Americans have lost their right to vote, compared to nearly 2 percent for non-African-Americans—illustrating the lasting effects of a racially biased criminal justice system.
Kentucky is one state that makes it nearly impossible for former felons to vote, and a grassroots group there has been challenging this form of disenfranchisement. If the numbers nationwide are dismal, it’s even worse in Kentucky, where nearly a quarter million people have lost their right to cast a ballot.
Meet Meta Mendel-Reyes. She’s on the Steering Committee of Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a statewide, grassroots social justice organization that seeks to restore the right of former felons to vote. She explains that former felons who have already served their time are subjected to an onerous process to attempt to get their voting rights restored—but even that process doesn’t guarantee they’ll be able to cast a ballot.
Go to Jail, Lose Your Vote
Rev. Damon Horton wasn’t always a minister. More than a decade ago, he was a gang member, and a dealer who was arrested in 2003 and 2004 for drug trafficking. He was convicted and sentenced to twelve years in prison. While Horton was incarcerated, he felt the call to the ministry. After completing 20 percent of his sentence, he was released on parole in 2006. Soon after, he married, started a family and became a minister. Yet despite turning his life around, there is one act of citizenship closed to him: he is not allowed to vote. “I can pay taxes again,” Horton says, “but I can’t vote or have a real voice in the government.”
And Horton is not alone. More than one in five African-Americans in Kentucky can’t vote because they have been convicted of a felony. In most states, after people have served their time, they are given their voting rights back. Not in Kentucky, where more than 243,000 residents have lost the right to participate in democracy.
Under the state constitution, former felons have to petition the governor in order to have their rights restored. It’s a tricky process that takes time and doesn’t guarantee a result, partly because each governor sets up his or her own procedure during his or her tenure.
Under current Governor Steve Breshear, former felons have to wait until they have served out all their prison time, probation and parole. Then, they have to get the signature of a probation or police officer, and have that notarized. Then, their paperwork gets kicked around a bit between Corrections, the local Commonwealth Attorney and the governor. If everything goes well, the applicant can get the right to vote back in as little as sixty days.
But the Commonwealth Attorney has a lot of leeway. Some give back rights easily, while others approve only a few. Making the process even more complicated is the fact that many elections officials and corrections staff don’t know the process themselves. According to Dave Newton, KFTC organizer, “Many former felons don’t even realize that they can get their voting rights back.”
Restoration of voting rights is not only a matter of democracy. Former felons who vote are half as likely to recidivate than former felons who don’t vote. It makes sense—when a former felon feels like part of the community, he or she is less likely to act out against that community.
Under the state constitution, former felons have to petition the governor for a pardon in order to have their voting rights restored. This makes Kentucky one of the four most difficult states, along with Virginia, Florida and Iowa, for former felons to regain their full citizenship rights.
Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a statewide, multi-issue, grassroots organization has been leading the fight to restore voting rights to former felons like Reverend Horton. House Bill 70, introduced earlier this year, would allow Kentucky voters to decide whether to grant automatic restoration of voting rights to most former felons once they have paid their debt to society (the law would exclude former felons convicted of treason, murder, sex crimes or bribery). Although the bill has passed overwhelmingly in the House, it has been stalled in the State Senate, largely due to the efforts of one hostile Committee Chairman. Sympathetic legislators plan to introduce it again in 2013.
State Senator Gerald Neal, a longtime supporter of the restoration of voting rights, eloquently asked, “Why would you give them a life sentence from democracy? It makes no sense. It’s inconsistent with our system of democracy.”
Kentucky effectively targets African-Americans, other people of color and low-income folks who will be unable to cast a ballot because of a past conviction for which they have already served their time. With an upcoming election that threatens to disenfranchise people through voter ID laws, let’s not forget the millions of former felons who have already been kept from voting.
For more on race and the ballot box, read Voting Rights Watch’s piece on Pennsylvania court case.