Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear signed an executive order on Tuesday morning to grant voting rights to the state’s estimated 170,000 non-violent former felons who’ve completed their sentences. When it comes to voting rights for ex-felons, Kentucky is among the most draconian states in the union. The state automatically revokes the voting rights of anyone convicted of a felony, making it one of eight states to do so. Along with Florida and Iowa, Kentucky laws require that the governor personally sign off on any former offenders who apply to have their voting rights re-instated.
Beshear’s term ends in two weeks, which leaves the fate of his executive order in the hands of his successor, Republican Matt Bevin. So before we start planning a big parade for this guy, let’s take a moment to recognize that, a. the order could be repealed before the year is over, and b. he could have done this on his first day in office when it might have, you know, actually been in effect for enough time to get some former inmates to the polls. On a brighter note, incoming Governor Matt Bevin has voiced his support for restoring voting rights in the past, so with any luck he’ll let the measure stand.
To get an idea of how voting restrictions on former inmates effect the population at large, about 5.85 million American citizens are barred from voting because of felony convictions. According to a report by The Nation, Kentucky’s laws keep 7.4 percent of its voting-age population from participating in elections.
Kentucky’s law is part of its original constitution passed in 1792, making it the first state to adopt a law preventing felons from voting. Several statewide restrictions were imposed on convicted felons after America’s Civil War, which appears to have been an attempt to prevent African-Americans—who were recently granted the right to vote—from getting out to the polls. The law continues to affect Black Americans disproportionately. In Kentucky an estimated 22.3 percent of voting-age black residents are prevented from voting because of the law.
The voting rights of Black Americans have essentially been under siege since the passage of the 15th Amendment. Aside from laws that restrict the voting rights of convicted felons, poll taxes, voter literacy tests, and campaigns of intimidation have all historically been used as ways of keeping Black Americans out of the electoral process. Today, Voter ID laws also prevent would-be minority voters from taking part in elections disproportionately.
These laws amount to institutionalized, state-sanctioned racism. Ending the practice was the right thing to do, but Governor Beshear’s timing means there’s a chance all of this will amount to little more than political posturing which serves to make Beshear seem like a nice guy without actually improving anyone’s life or, notably, incurring any loss of political capital for the man. In the mean time, it wouldn’t be a terrible idea if we collectively turned our eyes away from the glitz and glamour of the 2016 presidential campaign trail and toward our state capitals.