Yesterday, in a magical land known only as “Frankfort,” a group of some 16 state lawmakers gathered in Room 171 of the Capitol Annex building to hear testimonies on behalf of House Bill 70, a piece of legislation that would amend Kentucky’s constitution to grant former felons the right of suffrage. Joining the lawmakers were about three times as many supporters of the bill, most of them representing the progressive non-profit Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, including a select group of speakers representing the League of Women Voters, the Kentucky NAACP and a priest from the Catholic Conference, among others.
According to KFTC’s meeting minutes, HB 70 garnered only 36 minutes of the Joint Taskforce on Elections, Constitutional Amendments and Intergovernmental Affairs’ undivided attention. Granted it wasn’t the only item on taskforce’s agenda that day, but then none of those other items (official candidacy procedure, early voting measures, etc.) seemed to carry the gravitas of this bill, whose potential impact on lowering state recidivism rates alone should make it, in the words of one supporter, “a no-brainer.”
At its essence, the bill would largely eliminate the Byzantine process whereby felons must obtain a pardon from the governor, which in itself is no small feat, all the while eking their way through a legal labyrinth over many years, costing them thousands of dollars in assorted legal fees, and even then there’s no guarantee their rights will be restored. HB 70 would also bring Kentucky up to speed with the 48 other states that offer voter restoration for former felons, and is an idea that at least has real traction among half of Kentucky’s bicameral government — not to mention among lot of people who’ve ever been thrown in prison.
In 1996, George Moorman, freshly off parole for a felony shoplifting conviction, began this process. “I had to pay my child support, pay my court costs, pay my back taxes, pay my court fees, fines and restitutions,” he says, and only then was he even eligible to apply for a pardon, which he ultimately received, via the pen of then-Gov. Paul Patton, in 2001.
“You feel more like a citizen when you have the rights of a citizen,” continues Moorman. “You can participate in the voting process. Just being able to interact with society that way, your voice counts. People without voting rights are invisible; outta sight, outta mind, you know?”
This isn’t the first time that HB 70 — authored and sponsored by Reps. Jesse Crenshaw, D-77, and Darryl Owens, D-43 — has made rounds in the capitol. During the last General Assembly, the bill squeezed through the House with its largest majority vote to date (83-14), yet — like clockwork — the bill was ultimately left to die in anguish, like an orphaned baby, at the doorstep of the Republican-controlled Senate.
“As far as political work goes, there’s nothing more fundamental than getting people eligible to vote,” says Kate Miller, a KFTC member who works for the Kentucky ACLU. Although Miller, who was present for the testimony, said that the speakers were “well received,” she worries that without support of key Republican members of the senate then the bill will be viewed as a threat.
“There’s this idea that if we restore voting rights for felons, then [felons] will vote in a bunch of Democrats,” Miller says, “even though [studies] have shown that they don’t vote along rigid party lines once they get out of prison.”
In the meantime, members of KFTC and other groups will be knocking on doors throughout many central and west Louisville neighborhoods this Saturday to spread awareness of the issue and the bill. Beyond that, they’ll also be waiting on lawmakers to take up the issue next January, when bill-season officially begins again in earnest.