This story has been updated.
Gov. Steve Beshear will sign an executive order restoring voting rights to non-violent felons in Kentucky who have completed their sentences.
Beshear made the announcement Tuesday in Frankfort. The executive order excludes people convicted of bribery, sex crimes or treason, he said.
“The right to vote is one of the most intrinsically American privileges, and thousands of Kentuckians are living, working and paying taxes in the state but are denied this basic right,” said Beshear, a Democrat. “Once an individual has served his or her time and paid all restitution, society expects them to reintegrate into their communities and become law-abiding and productive citizens. A key part of that transition is the right to vote.”
Beshear said the executive order will make about 180,000 Kentuckians eligible to vote.
The felon voting rights issue has been considered in the the General Assembly in recent years but has failed to win passage.
State House Minority Leader Jeff Hoover was quick to criticize Beshear’s use of executive order to expand voting rights rather than working through the legislature.
“Once again this governor has chosen to usurp the authority of the Kentucky General Assembly through executive order,” said Hoover, who has supported legislation to extend voting rights to felons.
“It should be the role of the legislature, not one person, which should address these issues through legislative debate.”
Hoover, a Republican from Jamestown, said voting rights can only be done by amending the state constitution. He questioned the legality of the executive order.
During the press conference, Beshear dismissed the argument.
“The constitution gives Kentucky’s governor the authority to restore civil rights or to fully pardon an individual of crimes,” Beshear said.
Voting rights advocates said they still want the legislature to pass a felon voting rights bill so that future governors can’t issue a subsequent executive order rescinding Beshear’s policy.
Kentucky NAACP President Raoul Cunningham said he hopes the legislature will “honor” Beshear’s order.
“The first preference of course would be legislative action, but since the legislature has not acted, we’re very glad that Gov. Beshear decided to issue the executive order today to give some immediate relief to those who are affected,” Cunningham said.
“We’re still going to have to go before the legislature to try to make it permanent.”
State Rep. Darryl Owens, a Louisville Democrat who has sponsored the voting rights bill in recent years, said the legislature needs to pass the bill so Kentuckians “don’t suffer at the whims of the governor.”
“We always talk about redemption and then when somebody does something, we want to hang them for life,” Owens said.
During his campaign, Governor-elect Matt Bevin said he was supportive of restoring voting rights to non-violent felons. In a statement on Tuesday, Bevin’s spokeswoman said he would evaluate Beshear’s executive order during the transition period.
Non-violent felons who have served their time will be able to fill out a form and, once approved, have their voting rights restored. They’ll also be able to run for public office.
Those who are currently incarcerated or on parole will automatically receive a certificate saying that their rights are restored when they finish their time.
Beshear said the state shouldn’t deny civil rights to those who have paid for their crimes.
“It makes no sense because it dilutes the energy of democracy, which functions only if all classes and categories of people have a voice,” Beshear said
Felons will still be forbidden from owning a gun and serving on a jury.
Here’s the executive order: