Saying Kentucky state senators have been the historical roadblock, Democrat Gerald Neal of Louisville has pre-filed a bill to restore voting rights to certain former felons.
Movement on the proposal comes weeks after U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., spoke out in favor of restoring felons’ voting rights at the state and federal levels, which many observers argue is an indication the GOP may be changing its view on the issue.
For the past six years, the Democratic-led state House has passed similar proposals by wide, bipartisan margins to give convicted felons their rights back. All of those measures have died in the Republican-controlled Senate and often without a hearing.
Neal says senators in the Republican caucus are beginning to come around and putting the bill in his chamber first is a better strategy given its history.
“Other versions of the restoration bill have passed the House, but the Senate has never picked it up. There are some indications now particularly from committee chairs and others that they have an interest in this bill,” he says. “The House is not the problem. And hopefully the Senate will not be the problem this time, but what we need to do is bring the focus to the Senate to move this legislation.”
Neal’s proposal has similar language to a bill passed out of the House by a 75-25 vote earlier this year. It would restore voting rights of former felons except for those who committed an intentional killing, sex crime or bribery.
“The fact of the matter is that it’s the Senate that needs to deal with this issue. There’s a willingness of some to do that. I think if it’s put on the floor for a vote I think it’ll pass,” says Neal.
Kentucky is one of a handful of states that bar those with a felony record from voting unless they receive a pardon from the governor.
The Sentencing Project estimates 243,842 residents in the state with felony convictions were barred from the polls in 2010, including approximately 180,000 who have completed their full sentences.
A joint task force on elections and constitutional amendments is scheduled to hear from supporters of the bill on Tuesday afternoon, and the Republican chair says he supports the Neal measure.
“The bill that I’ve looked at I’m in favor of,” says state Sen. Joe Bowen of Owensboro, who co-chairs the panel. “And I’m sure there will be some amendments offered. I don’t have any in my back pocket, but I am certainly not opposed to hearing it and letting it go through the process.”
It is unclear if Paul’s recent support is responsible for any shift in the state GOP, however. Bowen said Paul’s comments didn’t “greatly influence” his decision.
But a spokesman with the U.S. senator’s office did tell WFPL that conversations with state senate GOP leaders have been ongoing.
“I’d say that they’re open to more conversation about the bill. That’s an improvement on where they’ve been compared to the past,” says Paul spokesman Dan Bayens. “I feel it’s moving in a positive direction. Obviously they haven’t always been this open to it before.”
Observers point out part of Paul’s motivation to speak to voting rights issues is an overall reach out to minorities for a possible White House bid.
The consequence of Kentucky’s current law is acute among black residents. The state has the second highest rate of voter disenfranchisement among African-Americans in the country at 22 percent.
A number of progressive activists have argued Paul is parachuting into the issue, however. They see the senator as trying to take a political advantage and note organizers have lobbied the General Assembly long before Paul arrived.
Lexington resident Tayna Fogle, a former felon who is set to testify before lawmakers this week, says it doesn’t matter who receives praise if civil rights for Kentuckians trying to turn their lives around are restored.
“I don’t care who gets the kudos for a bill that is well-deserved,” she says. “Every vote is important. As long as at the end of the day people who have served their time, paid their debt to society, back in the community working, paying taxes and those like myself go to the polls to voice our opinion, I don’t care who gets the credit.”