TheTimesTribune.com, Corbin, KY
By Ronnie Ellis / CNHI News Service
There was an air of anticipation preceding Tuesday’s meeting of the Joint Interim Committee on State Government which was to discuss restoring felon’s voting rights and the need for requiring photo identification for voting in Kentucky.
But when the meeting was over, it didn’t feel like many minds had changed from whatever point of view with which they began.
The Democratic-controlled House has several times passed legislation which would automatically restore voting rights for felons convicted of non-violent or non-sexual crimes but the legislation never got anywhere in the Republican-controlled Senate.
But advocates have gotten their hopes up of late since Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul has expressed support for the idea, albeit with a mandatory waiting period. Presently, under the Kentucky Constitution, felons must apply to the governor to have rights restored, including voting rights.
Sen. Gerald Neal, D-Louisville, has pre-filed a bill identical to one supported in the past by Rep. Jesse Crenshaw, D-Lexington. But after a presentation by Myrna Perez, Director of the Voting Rights and Elections Project at the Brennan Center for Justice at the NYU School of Law, Republicans on the committee didn’t seem persuaded.
Perez said Kentucky is one of three states that permanently prohibit voting for felons unless the governor approves a partial pardon while 39 states automatically restore their voting rights after they’ve served their sentence and completed any probation period, after they’ve “paid their debt to society.” Two, Maine and Vermont, allow incarcerated prisoners to vote.
As with the rest of the nation, African Americans represent a disproportionate percentage of felons without voting rights in Kentucky. One in five African Americans in Kentucky is barred from voting because of a felony conviction.
Perez said multiple studies have shown restoring voting rights actually reduces recidivism rates while a Bluegrass Poll indicates that 51 percent of Kentuckians would support a constitutional amendment to restore those rights when sentences are complete and 38 percent oppose the idea.
Tanya Fogle, a former felon, exhorted the committee to support Neal’s legislation.
“I made a mistake, but I’m not a mistake and I can add to this community,” Fogle said. “I love you because I know you’re going to do the right thing. Do the right thing! Do the right thing!”
That presentation was followed by one from Hans von Spakovsky of the Heritage Foundation who wants Kentucky to require voter identification to vote. Present Kentucky law allows but does not require precinct officers to ask for photo identification but it does not have to be a government-issued photo I.D. and is seldom invoked.
Many critics of such laws – generally supported by Republicans and opposed by Democrats – say they are designed to suppress the minority and poor vote.
But von Spakovsky cited numerous statistics from states which have passed such laws indicating minority voting percentages actually increased after passage of the laws. However, in most instances the increase minority vote percentages he cited occurred in 2008 when Barack Obama was the first African American nominee of one of the two major parties.
To counter that question, von Spakovsky cited similar increases in 2010 when Republicans rode a wave election into control of the U.S. House of Representatives. He cited multiple court cases which have upheld such laws.
He also pointed out how commonly photo identification is to board airplanes or to enter secure buildings.
Von Spakovsky was joined by James Lewis, Leslie County Clerk and Elections Committee Chair for the Kentucky County Clerk Association. But in response to Democratic members’ questions, Lewis said vote hauling – the practice of paying workers to transport voters to the polls – was a bigger source of vote fraud in Kentucky than unqualified, unregistered voters posing as someone else.
As for that sort of voter fraud, Lewis said, “I do not recall such a case in 20 years, well since 1988.”
Sen. Damon Thayer, R-Georgetown, said he sees it as a problem, noting he’d supported voter photo identification legislation in the past and said he sees the two pieces of legislation on restoration of voting rights and photo identification as “inextricably linked.”
In addition to bring calls of “No!” from the crowd which was there largely in support of restoring felons voting rights, the statement from the Senate Majority Floor Leader may have indicated what the likely position of the Republican Senate – regardless of the calls for change by Paul.
Paul is mulling a run for president in 2016 and has been actively engaged in outreach efforts to African American groups in an effort to broaden his appeal.
RONNIE ELLIS writes for CNHI News Service and is based in Frankfort. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow CNHI News Service stories on Twitter at www.twitter.com/cnhifrankfort.