Republican State Senator Damon Thayer Hits Breaks on Kentucky Felon Voting Rights

A Republican leader in the Kentucky Senate says GOP members are not warming to the restoration of felon voting rights despite U.S. Sen. Rand Paul’s support of the issue.

The response comes days after Paul staffers said they had been in contact with state lawmakers about the voting rights of ex-convicts

Democratic Senator Gerald Neal of Louisville told WFPL he was beginning to see opposition to his proposal wane earlier this week.

Neal’s bill would automatically restore the civil rights of certain convicted felons unless they committed an intentional killing, treason, bribery or a sex crime.

Paul spokesman Dan Bayens said no specific bill has been discussed. However, GOP state senators appeared to be “more open to the conversation” than in years past he said.

But Senate Republican Floor Leader Damon Thayer of Georgetown made it clear it’s too early to make predictions and that other issues remain a priority.

“It’s way too early for pundits to start handicapping the chances of legislation that may or may not pass sometime between January and April when we adjourn the session,” he says.

The GOP holds a 23-seat majority in the 38-member state Senate. The one independent caucuses with the Republicans.

If felons’ rights are to come up in the 2014 General Assembly it might have to be tied to a more conservative measure such as a possible voter ID bill in order to pass.

“I remain opposed to the bill, personally,” says Thayer. “I believe that the issue of restoring the voting rights of a couple of hundred thousand felons or former felons should be (and) is also linked with voter id at the polls, which I’m strongly in favor of.”

The Sentencing Project estimates nearly a quarter-million Kentuckians with felony convictions were barred from the polls in 2010. It has a disproportionate effect on black voters in particular, with the state holding the highest rate of disenfranchisement among African-Americans in the country at 22 percent.

Bills restoring voting rights for some felons has historically passed the Democratic-run House by overwhelming and bipartisan margins while dying in the GOP-controlled state Senate.

But Paul’s recent support of restoring felon voting rights—part of his overall pitch to minorities—has put new attention on the issue.

Local GOP officials were quick to credit the U.S. senator’s involvement this week even as state Republicans who were open to the idea said Paul had little to do with their position.

“Senator Paul does what he does and stands for what he stands for. I don’t know that I’m greatly influenced by his positions. I make up my own mind,” said Republican state Sen. Joe Bowen of Owensboro, who co-chairs a committee on constitutional amendments and told WFPL he supports Neal’s bill.

The hesitance on the part of GOP leaders demonstrates the differing priorities Kentucky lawmakers have with Paul, who is trying to expand his base of appeal for a possible U.S. presidential bid in 2016.

And if felon voting rights is something that comes up next year state lawmakers are going decide that issue independently.

“We have a great deal of respect for Sen. Paul. Anytime he wishes to weigh-in on a state issue we are going to listen to his input as we have with other members of the federal delegation when they have an interest,” says Thayer. “But the way things are done in the Senate is we talk to members of our caucus at the appropriate time and gather opinion, and if it has the votes to move through the process then that’s what happens.”

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