LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Nearly a quarter-million people in Kentucky are denied voting rights due to prior felony convictions, ranking among the highest disenfranchisement rates in the country, a new report said Tuesday.
Voting booths are off-limits to one of every 14 adults in Kentucky, nearly three times the national rate, according to the report released by the League of Women Voters of Kentucky.
Among blacks, almost one in five is disenfranchised in Kentucky — almost triple the national rate, it said.
The findings come as Kentucky lawmakers again consider legislation that would restore some felons' voting rights. Such proposals have been stymied for years in the General Assembly.
"If you believe in redemption ... then people who have rehabilitated themselves ought to be able to be just like any other citizen and be allowed to vote," said state Rep. Jesse Crenshaw, who has championed the cause for years.
With an estimated 243,842 of its adults barred from voting, Kentucky has the nation's third-highest disenfranchisement rate, behind Florida and Mississippi, the report said.
Kentucky has the second-highest rate among blacks, it said.
"Overall, 90 percent of the disenfranchised population is not in prison, but living in the community," the report said.
Nearly three-fourths of those Kentuckians have completed their sentences, it said. Kentucky is one of four states that permanently disenfranchise all felons, even after their sentences are completed, it said.
A proposed constitutional amendment that cleared a House committee on Tuesday would make most felons automatically eligible to vote after serving their sentences or completing probation or parole. Those convicted of intentional killing or sex crimes would not have their privileges reinstated.
Crenshaw, D-Lexington, is the bill's chief sponsor. Similar proposals have passed the House but died in the Senate. Crenshaw said the issue is a matter of fairness, reflected in his conversation years ago with a man who helped at his office.
"We're sitting there stuffing envelopes and finally he looked kind of sadly and said, 'I wish I could vote.' And I said, 'What do you mean you wish you could vote?' And he said, 'Well, I have a felony and I can't vote.'"
The man has since died, Crenshaw said.
In its report, the non-partisan League of Women Voters urged lawmakers to pass a ballot measure allowing voters to decide whether to amend the Constitution to automatically restore the voting rights of felons who complete their sentences.
The report called Kentucky's process for restoring voting rights "one of the most burdensome in the nation."
Under the state constitution, the power to restore voting rights rests with the governor. Felons who have completed their sentences can seek an executive pardon from the governor.
"Consequently, the difficulty of having voting rights restored varies greatly depending on the values or political positions of the current governor," the report said. "The criteria for restoration are inconsistent and inequitable."
The league also called for improvements to the application process to reinstate access to the ballot box.
In 2001, Kentucky lawmakers passed legislation to simplify the process. The law requires the Department of Corrections to inform all those eligible and to assist them with the application process. That spurred a rise in applications to have voting rights restored, and the number of people gaining those rights also increased, the report said.
In 2004, then-Gov. Ernie Fletcher required applicants to submit a written statement and three character references. That resulted in a drop in both applications and approvals, the report said.
Current Gov. Steve Beshear removed the written statement and three references requirements and it led to an increase in the number of people getting their voting rights restored, the report said.
Beshear's spokeswoman, Kerri Richardson, said he has consistently supported measures to automatically restore the rights to vote and hold office for felons who completed their sentences, excluding those convicted of murder or sex crimes.
"Right now, all cases for restoration of civil rights are reviewed on a case-by-case basis, and we consult with the prosecutor in the case," she said. "If a prosecutor objects, we hold the application in abeyance, except in cases where a prosecutor is known to object to all applications submitted. If this happens, an independent determination is still made."