Outgoing Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear’s executive order last week restoring voting rights for about 180,000 former felons in Kentucky could be a boon for state Democrats, who suffered tough electoral losses this year.
Besides losing a gubernatorial race for only the second time in 40 years, Democrats lost other state offices they’d previously held, including auditor and treasurer. And although they still hold a steady lead in voter registration, the Democratic Party in Kentucky has been losing ground.
Dewey Clayton, a political science professor at the University of Louisville, said Beshear’s order — which extends voting rights to most non-violent ex-felons who have served their time — has the potential to change the electorate in the state.
According to Clayton, studies have shown that upwards of 20 percent of the African-American population in Kentucky had previously been disenfranchised because of restrictive rights restoration policies in the state. He said Beshear’s order is a positive change. Activists have long been clamoring for a change to Kentucky’s rights restoration policy.
Besides former felons, the change could also help Democrats.
“Given the fact that African-Americans tend to largely be Democrats, it could possibly have some sort of turnout,” he said.
But Clayton said it’s difficult to determine what the political result will actually be because there are other factors in play.
“Just because these individuals now have a right to vote doesn’t mean that they are automatically going to vote,” he said.
Clayton said there is also no telling what party affiliation these voters will choose or who they will eventually vote for.
The long-term electoral effects of Beshear’s order also depend on whether incoming governor Matt Bevin changes it or the General Assembly takes action. Past efforts to address rights restoration in the state legislature were met with resistance.
According to NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice, Kentucky’s law “was one of the harshest in the nation.” The state constitution permanently bars anyone with a past felony conviction from casting ballot, according to the voting law research group. The only recourse to restore their ability to vote is a governor’s order.
“The [order] will make it possible for more than 170,000 Kentucky citizens with past criminal convictions to get back their right to vote — an estimated 140,000 are immediately eligible to have their rights restored, and another 30,000 will be over time,” the Brennan Center said in a statement posted on its website.
During his campaign, Bevin said he supports restoring voting rights to non-violent ex-felons. In a statement last week, Bevin’s spokeswoman said he would evaluate Beshear’s order during the transition period. Bevin takes office Dec. 8.