Kentucky Is Disenfranchising Black Voters At A Higher Rate Than Any Other State In The Country
One out of every four African American voters is disenfranchised in the state of Kentucky, a higher rate than any other state, as a result of the state’s law barring people with felony convictions from voting, according to a new report from the Kentucky League of Women Voters released Tuesday.
Kentucky is one of three states that currently has a lifetime ban keeping people with felony convictions — also known as returning citizens — from voting, and the report found that the state ranks third in the United States in rate of disenfranchisement. Currently, more than 312,000 people in Kentucky are currently without ballot access, or one out of every 11 adults. (For context, nationally, just one in 40 people, about 2.5 percent of the country, are ineligible to vote due to felony convictions, including about 9.1 percent of African Americans.)
In 2016, lawmakers in Kentucky passed a bill that allowed some people in the state with low-level felony convictions to have their convictions expunged and right to vote restored. The expungement fee, however, costs $500, making it one of the costliest in the nation, according to The Appeal, and according to Tuesday’s report, just 2,032 people have had their right to vote restored through that process.
Additionally, the league says, about 11,500 people have had their rights stored by being pardoned by the governor. Those who have been pardoned or have had their convictions expunged represent less than 1 percent of people currently disenfranchised in the state, the League of Women Voters report found.
As part of the report, the league recommends putting a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would automatically restore voting right to returning citizens once they have completed all terms of their sentence, like Florida’s Amendment 4, which restored voting rights to 1.4 million returning citizens overnight when it passed in November.
Following Amendment 4’s passage, just Kentucky, Iowa, and Virginia still have lifetime bans on voting once a person has been convicted of a felony. In Virginia, governors have used executive orders to restore rights to most people convicted, and Iowa, too, has begun to take steps to end disenfranchisement in the state. Just hours before the League of Women Voters report was released, in fact, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R) introduced two resolutions aimed at restoring voting rights to returning citizens in the state.
“[Ending disenfranchisement] doesn’t come quickly, apparently especially here in Kentucky,” Judy Johnson, who oversees the Kentucky League of Women Voters’ work on returning citizen voting rights, told ThinkProgress Thursday morning. “We have watched very closely Virginia, Florida, and Iowa… It’s very lonely and… we’re missing a real opportunity to do something good.”
Earlier this week, New Mexico also took a major step, aiming to completely eliminate the disenfranchisement of people with felony convictions in the state. They could soon join Vermont and Maine as the only states in the country that allow people with felony convictions to vote even while in prison.
Johnson said Tuesday morning that she’s hoping the renewed focus on felony disenfranchisement will inspire change in her state. “This has been an issue for so long, but this is picking up steam,” she said.