Politics

For Kentucky residents who have been convicted of a felony, the punishment doesn’t end when prison sentences are served and parole terms run out.

Louisville resident Michael Hiser knows this.  He said felony charges “brand you for life.”  And on Election Day, it’s a branding that does not go unnoticed.

“I can’t vote,” said Hiser, who was first convicted of a felony when he was 16-years-old.  For 25 years, he said, he battled with a drug addiction and racked up multiple felony convictions.

He is now 44 and has been sober and drug free for 11 years.  He has earned two degrees and is gaining ground on a third.

Hiser is a former teacher at Jefferson Community and Technical School and a licensed minister; since leaving prison he has volunteered more than 3,000 hours working in correctional facilities as a minister and counselor.

He most recently accepted a job with the Right Turn program in Louisville, working with at-risk youth.

But on Election Day, the progress Hiser has made turning his life around doesn’t matter, he said.  He still can’t vote.

Kentucky is one of just four states that rescind your right to vote upon a felony conviction.

That means Kentucky has about 243,000 residents (more than 180,000 of which have completed their sentence) who cannot vote, according to information provided by Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, an advocacy group.  Felons can have their rights restored only with a pardon by the governor, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

But filing for a pardon doesn’t interest Hiser.

“I shouldn’t have to beg,” he said.  “Voting is a right for all free people.”

State Rep. Jesse Crenshaw, a Lexington Democrat, introduced House Bill 70 in the 2014 General Assembly that called for automatic restoration of voting rights for felons. The bill did not pass.

Before faltering in the legislature, the bill was amended by a Republican-led Senate.  Included in the changes was a mandatory five-year waiting period before felons’ voting rights are restored.

Senate Majority leader Damon Thayer, a Georgetown Republican, said at the time that the waiting period “is reasonable.”

“To give an individual time to reimerse themselves in society and prove to the criminal justice system that they can be good citizens,” he said in February of this year.

State Rep. Darryl Owens, a Louisville Democrat, said he wasn’t very surprised at the bill’s failure.

Related:  In Kentucky the Path to Restoring Voting Rights to Felons Makes a Detour

“This is Kentucky,” Owens said.  “We are not going to be forward-looking when it comes to these types of issues.”

But Hiser is looking to the future. He said he will be able to vote again, one day—whether it’s as a Kentucky resident or not.

“I’m going to stay here and fight the fight, but after the fight can’t be fought anymore I will move,” he said.

The message that lawmakers send when they deny voting rights to felons who have served their time in prison is staunchly negative, Hiser said.

“You can come here, you can commit crimes here, you can go to prison here, but if you want to change your life and if you want to do good for the community, you need to move,” Hiser said.

Hiser said he didn’t know how important voting was when he was a 16-year-old first time felon.  It took years of education—he read the Constitution, he took political science classes—for him to understand the role he could play in society.

“Once I found out what it is to be a citizen in the community and what it is to be a part of the community, my life changed,” he said.

Hiser said he pays taxes, but questions why he must since he has no say in who is elected.

“I have no voice at the Capitol, but I have my pocket at the IRS, that’s not right,” he said.

But he wants a say and he wants to have a voice.  He said he is always telling people to vote.  Last week, at the church where he is a youth minister, he said he stood in front of the congregation and pleaded with everyone there to vote.

“It’s a right that you need to exercise,” he said.  “I don’t care who you vote for, just go vote.”

Jacob Ryan is a reporter for the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting.