Florida: check, Kentucky: next?
In last month’s midterm elections, Florida voters restored the voting rights of nearly 1.5 million of the state’s citizens. Specifically, the amendment gives all former felons, except convicted murders and sex offenders, the right to vote once they complete the entirety of their sentence. The Voting Rights Restoration for Felons Initiative (Amendment 4) was led on the premise of forgiveness, headed by former felons. Desmond Meade, one of the leaders of the initiative and President of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, is a former felon himself; he emphasized the “power of restoration” in his call to Florida citizens to have compassion for returning citizens and reinstate their right to vote as a stepping stone in their re-entry into society.
Despite Florida’s success, millions of Americans remain disenfranchised due a felony conviction and these rights drastically vary throughout the country. While states like Vermont and Maine bare no restrictions on voters with felony convictions, Kentucky, Iowa, and until just recently, Virginia and Florida completely bar voting rights permanently after a felony conviction. Currently, the only way for a felon to regain their right to vote in Iowa and Kentucky is to individually petition the Governor to reinstate their rights. Most states fall somewhere in between—allowing felons to vote along the timeline of release, either after incarceration or during their probation or parole sentence.
Minorities are disproportionally affected by felon disenfranchisement due to the grossly high rates of arrests and incarcerations in these communities. One in thirteen African Americans of voting age is disenfranchised. That number is staggering alone but especially when compared to the mere 1.8% of disenfranchised voters who are non-African American.
In addressing racial voting discrimination in the past, the courts have hesitated to apply constitutional rights to the issue. The Supreme Court weighed in on the issue in Richardson v. Ramirez, which specifically addressed felons voting rights as they applied under the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment; the Court held that depriving felons of the right to vote was acceptable because felonies fell under the definition of “participation in rebellion, or other crime” stated in § 2. In 2009, the First Circuit heard Simmons v. Galvin, in which the plaintiffs argued that new Massachusetts laws violated the Voting Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1973, because they inordinately impacted minorities’ voting rights. The court nevertheless held that the Voting Rights Act did not apply. Lower courts have agreed, generally finding that felon disenfranchisement is allowable under federal law.
Despite the courts’ hesitance, state legislatures have successfully repealed felon disenfranchisement laws in recent years. In April 2018, Governor Cuomo announced that he would restore the rights of 35,000 of New York’s disenfranchised parolees; a decision which was influenced entirely by a coalition of organizers from the National Action Network and the Brennan Center. In 2016, the voting rights of 40,000 Marylanders were restored; an initiative that was greatly influenced by a local organization, Communities United.
Taking a cue from these successes, grassroots efforts may prove to be the most successful path in changing disenfranchisement laws for one of the nation’s holdouts, Kentucky. One in every eleven citizens of voting age in Kentucky cannot vote due to felon restrictions. While encompassing only 7.8% of the state’s overall population, 21% of black Kentuckians are barred from voting because of their felony convictions. These statistics place Kentucky first on the list of states with the most restrictive disenfranchisement laws for African-Americans and this number is growing. Moreover, Governor Bevin’s past opposition poses an added hurdle to repealing the law.
Nevertheless, Florida’s success has re-energized organizations like Kentuckians for the Commonwealth in their long-standing campaigns for felons’ voting rights. Kentucky state legislators have expressed intent to file bills addressing felon disenfranchisement in the 2019 legislative session. From there, the state’s House and Senate will need 60% supermajority to pass it on to voters to ratify. Repealing the law will require diligent work from organizers and continued momentum through the next election. However, if Florida’s success bares any evidence, Kentucky could see change in their voting laws in the very near future