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.