Disenfranchisement, or the permanent revocation of a person’s ability to vote, is a punishment written into the very foundations of Kentucky law. The discriminatory clause, a 131-year-old statute in the Commonwealth’s constitution, has a devastating effect on the civil liberties of the more than 240,000 Kentuckians who have been convicted of felonies, as it condemns them to a state of non-citizenry. In playing a political tug-of-war with what should be a universal right, state leaders are maintaining a broken system that is antithetical to the American conception of democracy. If Kentucky is to live up to this country’s ideal of fair and equal representation and secure the benefits of a healthy republic, it must end its legacy of felon disenfranchisement.
First, advocates of disenfranchisement maintain that by committing heinous crimes, those found guilty of felonies, especially violent ones, have forfeited a privilege. Additionally, those convicted of these wrongdoings do not have our society’s best interests in mind. They might go as far as to boot law-abiding leaders out of office and replace them with officials who are soft on crime. Additionally, disenfranchisement may make potential criminals think twice about breaking the law. Therefore, by barring felons from electoral participation, these voices believe that the public is being protected and democracy is being sanctified.
In truth, there is a stark lack of evidence that felons would prioritize a candidate’s position on crime before any of their other political stances. Like any other voter, felons consider a candidate’s entire platform and are capable of making informed decisions with their ballot. Often coupled with this shaky assumption is the belief that felons may swing a closely contested election in favor of a particular party. In 2003, speaking on a bill that would restore felons’ right to vote, Marty Connors, then Republican chair of Alabama stated, “As frank as I can be, we’re opposed to it because felons don’t vote Republican.” Once again, these fears are not supported by any data. While ex-felons do tend to lean more Democratic than the average voter, in most cases, their participation in elections would have a negligible effect on overall results.
Ultimately, however, who a felon votes for is irrelevant. Voting is a right, and as with any other right a person may do with it what they see fit. How a person casts their ballot should never be a determinant on whether they should be able to participate in our elections. America has long prided itself in its diversity of opinion and its recognition of minority voices, and disenfranchisement on these grounds violates the basis of a representative democracy. Without the guaranteed right to elect our public officials, Kentuckians convicted of felonies are effectively being stripped of their citizenship.
Furthermore, the belief that the threat of disenfranchisement would stop future crime suffers from the same lack of foundation. In truth, restricting the right to vote works against the well-being of society and increases the rate at which felons reoffend, making disenfranchisement laws criminogenic, encouraging further offenses. Moreover, the idea that suffrage should be a privilege enjoyed by a perfectly law-abiding few is far from universal. Across party lines, a majority of Americans believe that ex-felons should have the right to vote. If impeding electoral participation is supposed to be cutting crime and upholding American democracy, it has failed in both regards.
Additionally, there are several unseen ways in which the restriction of voting access is hurting Kentucky and failing to realize potential benefits. First, states with enhanced voting access policies such as felon re-enfranchisement enjoy greater public health ratings. Likewise, the inverse is true. States that have introduced barriers to civic engagement have lower health outcomes. On top of this, voting functions as a cohesive glue, creating a sense of purpose and belonging within one’s community. Consequently, this increase in voting would likely be coupled with a decrease in recidivism as this same sense of social connectedness has been shown to have an impressive effect on crime reduction.
While headway has been made under Governor Andy Beshear with the signing of an executive order reinstating the right to vote for 140,000 non-violent offenders, the benchmarks of fair representation have not been met. Felon suffrage, even for those affected by the directive, is far from guaranteed. It was a mere seven years ago when Governor Matt Bevin, as one of the first actions of his new administration, rescinded an identical 2015 executive order, stating, “While I have been a vocal supporter of the restoration of rights, it is an issue that must be addressed through the legislature and by the will of the people.” This was the last action Governor Bevin took on the issue. Consequently, with each new gubernatorial election, thousands of Kentucky voters are left wondering if their right to vote is also on the ballot. State leaders have failed to recognize the liberties of felons in hopes to keep them relegated to a state of non-citizenry due to a perceived threat to their own political power. The Kentucky legislature must act now to recognize this injustice and restore the rights of these individuals. These are Kentuckians, who have, by serving their sentence and becoming law-abiding citizens, repaid their debt to society.