September 30, 2009

From prison to the voting booth

Activists push state lawmakers to restore the voting rights of felons who’ve served their time

It’s a cool, overcast afternoon in the Smoketown neighborhood, and in the parking lot of the Presbyterian Community Center a crowd is gathering; about 30 volunteers, many of them young and clad in their respective organizations’ T-shirts, are setting up tables, chairs, informational brochures and paper plates. Hip-hop music blasts from a set of twin speakers, and as a charcoal grill is fired up, releasing plumes of smoke high into the chilled air, worries are expressed that impending rain may cut the rally and cookout short.

The grill master laughs, cracks apart a stack of frozen hamburger patties, and says, smiling, “We’re gonna make it work.”

They’ve just returned from a door-knocking campaign to drum up support for the restoration of voting rights for former felons, an issue that remains largely off the radar of most Kentuckians — felons included. The complimentary hamburgers and hotdogs offer little remuneration for their efforts, but nobody seems to mind.

“Everyone we talked to was very receptive,” says Erin O’Bannon, a volunteer for Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. “But a lot of people just don’t even know that this is a problem.”

“One (felon) wasn’t even sure if his rights had been reinstated,” says Drew Tucker, a fellow KFTC volunteer, “yet he’d received a notice to report for jury duty. It just doesn’t make sense.”

As one of only two states (the other is Virginia) that doesn’t automatically restore the right of suffrage to convicted felons upon successful completion of their prison sentence, Kentucky lags far behind the rest of the nation in how it reintegrates its felons back into democratic society.

Under current law, felons are eligible to vote once they’ve finished their parole, paid restitutions or any outstanding fines, and received a pardon signed personally by the governor. On average, the entire process takes six months, but even then there are no guarantees — and far too many outliers.

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?”

While Moorman’s experience represents the extremely difficult end of the spectrum, he’s still one of the lucky few. According to a report conducted by the League of Women Voters of Kentucky, felony disenfranchisement rates in the commonwealth are the sixth highest in the nation, with approximately 186,000 felons ineligible to vote, even though two-thirds of them have completed their sentences. Kentucky also boasts the highest rate of voter disenfranchisement among blacks — three times the national average — with one out of every four African-Americans currently unable to cast a ballot.

But today’s door-knocking campaign is the latest front of an ongoing effort by concerned citizens, social-justice groups and progressive Kentucky Democrats to pass House Bill 70 — authored and sponsored by Reps. Jesse Crenshaw, D-77, and Darryl Owens, D-43 — which would make obsolete the hoop-jumping that Moorman and others have had to endure by automatically restoring suffrage once a felon has served his or her time.

Ever the mold breaker, the United States is the only Western democracy to take away a universal right like voting as a method of criminal punishment. Although only one-third of Americans support the idea of restoring suffrage for its prison-dwelling underbelly, studies have consistently correlated the ability to vote with lowered prison populations, suggesting a civically engaged population is a safer population. Lowered recidivism would also reduce the financial burden on taxpayers, who pay for the prisons and their inmates, as well as reducing the stress on correctional facilities, which have seen their populations swell to record-high levels in the past year alone.

Last week, during a pre-legislative season powwow, a group of some 16 state lawmakers gathered in the Capitol Annex building in Frankfort to hear testimonies on behalf of HB 70. Joining the lawmakers were about three times as many supporters of the bill, most of them representing the progressive nonprofit Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, including a select group of speakers representing the League of Women Voters, People Advocating Recovery, the Kentucky NAACP, and a priest from the Catholic Conference, among others.

According to KFTC’s meeting minutes, the bill garnered a mere 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.”

Of course, this isn’t the first time the Crenshaw-Owens bill (much less a “no-brainer” piece of legislation) has made perpetual rounds in the capitol. During the last General Assembly, it squeezed through the House with its largest majority vote to date (83-14), yet — like clockwork — 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 and as principal organizer of the door-knocking operation. Although Miller, who was present for the testimony, says that the speakers were “well received,” she worries that without the support of key Republican members of the Senate, 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.”

State Sen. Damon Thayer, R-17, heads the influential State and Local Government Committee, which stands as the de facto arbiter over whether HB 70 gets heard in the Senate. Though he could not be reached for comment, there is a fear among Kentucky’s politicians that support of such a bill would portray them as “being soft on crime,” which can be anathema in more conservative electorates.

In the meantime, volunteers and felons alike are waiting for next January’s General Assembly session, where it is hoped HB 70 will be treated like an idea that is long overdue. If passed, however, it will require that the state constitution be amended, meaning the issue would be presented to Kentuckians in the form of a ballot initiative during election season.

“Everyone’s going to have to vote on it,” says Miller, “which makes it all the more important to get as much ground support as possible, to educate people about the system as it is. Even if it passes the Senate (next year), our work still isn’t over.” 

This was a coalition effort!

By Colette
This event was a success due to amazing work done in coalition. The primary organizers were Kate Miller from the ACLU and Lavel White and Anthony Smith from Making Connections. Kentucky Jobs with Justice, Women In Transition, Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Oppression, Presbyterian Community Center, and many other community groups contributed to this event. All these coalition groups work steadily and diligently on Voting Rights all through the year.