Policymakers in state governments often take inspiration from surrounding states to implement changes in policy at home. Doing this gives lawmakers the ability to survey the intentions and effects of a certain policy before taking the risk of passing those policies in their state. This idea was explained perfectly by Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis, “It is one of the happy incidents of the federal system that a single courageous state may, if its citizens choose, serve as a laboratory; and try novel social and economic experiments without risk to the rest of the country.” State governments are the laboratories of our democracy, testing ideas through implementation and measuring the results.
Unfortunately, this concept cuts both ways. While it certainly leads to the spread and implementation of beneficial policy, it also results in the dissemination of detrimental policy–sometimes policy with malicious intent. This is the case with Section 145.1 of Kentucky’s state constitution, a clause that bans convicted felons from voting permanently even after they are freed from prison. Kentucky was the first state in the country to ban felons from voting in 1792, and almost every other state followed suit over the next few decades.
Kentucky began an experiment that would have enormous consequences. The intentions behind the original law were questionable: deny fundamental citizenship rights to people who were “unworthy” of exercising those rights because they committed a certain crime in the past. This reasoning raises important questions. Are one or two bad actions enough to ban someone from participating in democracy? Who decides what felonies are and why are certain crimes considered felonies while others are not? If supposedly free people can’t vote, will they still have to pay taxes and follow laws? This would be antithetical to American values. The flaws in the logic behind this policy are innumerable.
The experiment was always morally invalid in its lack of any grace or mercy for those convicted of crimes. It was always logically invalid under the principles of democracy. But the experiment became downright unethical when policymakers began to ratify the policy in their states to ban Black people from voting. Felon disenfranchisement laws were part of the web of Jim Crow regulations that made the Black vote nearly nonexistent in that era. Many of the state laws provided an avenue for the governor of the state to grant voting rights back to a former felon, leaving a path for white felons to gain their citizenship rights back. That provision came straight from Kentucky’s constitution.
The Jim Crow era saw this experiment metastasize across much of the nation, as state policymakers in the north and south sought to restrict the Black vote. The creation escaped the lab and scarred society, denying millions of people the right to vote over generations. When the Voting Rights Act of 1965 brought a stop to many forms of voter bans, felon disenfranchisement laws remained intact. In the following decades, mass incarceration became prominent, replacing Jim Crow as the dominant legal system of oppressing Black people. Felon disenfranchisement laws written during Jim Crow now banned millions more Black, brown, and poor white people from voting. The laws became an integral piece of the New Jim Crow: one part of the “civil death” that follows a felony conviction, in addition to losing rights to gun ownership, employment discrimination, and being isolated from societal participation.
This oppression led to advocacy and opposition to felon disenfranchisement. State governments went back to the lab to alter the experiment between the 1990s and the 2010s. Two allowed all people to vote, others restored the vote after completion of prison sentence and parole, and others only allowed certain former felons to vote. The laboratories of democracy were churning out solutions (or partial solutions) to a damaging policy. But two states remain committed to permanently disenfranchising former felons: Virginia and Kentucky.
The policy’s original scientist remains committed to their dangerous project, not understanding, or maybe fully understanding, the effects on society. Those effects are clear: almost 10% of Kentuckians are not able to vote. Those effects are also stark: 15% of Black Kentuckians can’t vote–20% of Black men. Democracy is further damaged when state legislators ignore the views of the people they represent and refuse to propose an amendment to the state constitution to restore voting rights to former felons. 67% of Kentuckians support the automatic restoration of voting rights upon completion of prison sentences; among younger Kentuckians aged 18-34, 84% support restoration. Kentuckians are ready for their state to get back into the laboratory and heal our democracy.
Our state started the convoluted experiment of felon disenfranchisement. Now we’ve seen the results; the whole country has seen them. We must work to end this experiment: it is undemocratic and frankly, it is inhumane. Who are we to condemn a man for life for one action he took? Who are we to deny others from participating in democracy with us? Who are we to say the Black Kentuckian can’t vote? Abolishing felon disenfranchisement is a necessity for our state. Let’s develop a new experiment where we allow all members of society to participate in it freely, starting with the right to vote. But defending the vote is not enough, Kentucky must also take a stand against employment discrimination and the stripping of other rights, as well as human rights abuses in its jails and prisons. We can give the rest of the country a blueprint to follow in advancing freedom, true justice, and equality–we can finally use the laboratory power of our state government for good.