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Gov. Beshear Restores Voting Rights of Nonviolent Ex-Felons

Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear's executive order automatically restores the voting rights of thousands of felons who have satisfied all terms of their sentences. Credit: Greg Stotelmyer
Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear's executive order automatically restores the voting rights of thousands of felons who have satisfied all terms of their sentences. Credit: Greg Stotelmyer
November 25, 2015

FRANKFORT, Ky. - With two weeks left in office, Gov. Steve Beshear has done what Kentucky's Legislature has refused to do - give back the right to vote to former felons who have fulfilled their sentences.

Beshear signed an executive order Tuesday automatically restoring voting rights of tens of thousands of Kentuckians. Those who committed violent crimes, sex crimes, bribery or treason are not covered by the order. Kentucky had been one of four states that did not automatically restore a felon's right to vote, which the governor called "unfair" and "counterproductive."

"This disenfranchisement makes no sense," he said. "It makes no sense, because it dilutes the energy of democracy."

Beshear acknowledged that Gov.-elect Matt Bevin, who takes office Dec. 8, could overturn his executive order. Bevin said in a statement that Beshear's order "will be evaluated during the transition period."

The Legislature has repeatedly refused to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot for Kentuckians to decide the issue. In 2014, a voting-rights bill made it to the Republican-controlled Senate, where a five-year waiting period was added - a move rejected by the Democrat-led House.

So, why did Beshear act now, just days before he ends eight years in office?

"Honestly, I didn't do it during the campaign season because I felt like it might become a political issue for both sides, and I didn't want that to happen," he said. "This is not anything to do with particular campaigns. This has to do with a basic right that every citizen ought to have."

At age 21, Mantell Stevens of Lexington was convicted of a drug crime. Now 36, Stevens has been off probation for more than a decade, but still can't vote. The lengthy application process was frustrating, discouraging and unfair, Stevens said, adding that he welcomes getting his voting rights back automatically.

"I'm able and I have the power to vote for those elected officials that directly affect my community," he said. "To be able to have other people that are now empowered, and that are now motivated to participate in democracy, I think there's going to be a big outpouring of people."

To make his voice heard when he couldn't vote, Stevens said, he joined Kentuckians For The Commonwealth, a grassroots organization that has advocated for the voting rights of former felons.

Greg Stotelmyer , Public News Service - KY