Sunday, March 9, 2008

Restoring voting rights in Kentucky made easier

By John Cheves

FRANKFORT -- Felons who complete their sentences can get their voting rights restored more easily under changes to the pardon process announced Tuesday by Governor Steve Beshear.

Beshear said he will drop requirements for an essay and three character references, both imposed by previous Gov. Ernie Fletcher. He also will revoke a $2 fee.

Under the "barriers" placed by Fletcher, the number of felons whose voting rights were restored shrank from more than 600 a year to about 250 a year.

"This disenfranchisement makes no sense," Beshear said.

"It dilutes the energy of democracy, which functions only if all classes and categories of people have a voice, not just the privileged, powerful people," he said. Kentucky is one of the few states to deny felons voting rights after they complete their sentences.

About 129,000 Kentuckians can't vote because of a felony conviction, Beshear said. He said corrections officials will help interested felons with pardon applications before their release from prison or jail, and his office will process more than 1,500 applications left behind by Fletcher, plus 176 new applications filed since Jan. 1.

Jefferson Commonwealth's Attorney David Stengel, who joined Beshear at the Capitol for the announcement, said that Fletcher's pardon process was unfair.

Beshear said he favors House Bill 70, a proposed constitutional amendment that would automatically restore the right to vote to most felons. But he stopped short of saying he would throw the weight of the governor's office behind it. HB 70 has waited on the House floor for weeks while House leaders debate casino gambling and the budget.

"I'm urging over and over that it be called," said its sponsor, Rep. Jesse Crenshaw, D-Lexington.

Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, a non-profit group has been pushing HB 70 since January 2008.