Thursday, April 13, 2006

Restoring Voting Rights

This editorial appeared in the Courier Journal Newspaper on February 22, 2006, A12, and was reprinted in the Louisville Branch NAACP Newsletter, March 2006.

Eighty percent of Americans polled two years ago favored automatic restoration of voting rights for ex-cons who have served their time and otherwise have met the terms of their release.

Unfortunately, Kentucky remains one of just three states where, instead, the restoration of voting rights to felons remains the governor’s exclusive prerogative. It’s a bad, arbitrary system, and civil rights groups, churches and civil libertarians are right to be pushing for passage of House Bill 480, which calls for placing on November’s ballot a constitutional amendment to allow automatic restoration of voting rights.

It’s unfair and counterproductive to insist that people coming out of prison live responsibly while withholding from them the rights of responsible citizenship. They remain hostages to a system dating to the 19th Century, when disenfranchisement laws were adopted as one of many ways to deny black citizens the vote.

In the 21 Century, these antiquated laws have left nearly five million Americans separated from their voting rights, including 13 percent of all African American men. The impact plays out differently in different locales, but those who have studied the issue have found that in some close elections, current members of Congress would not have won if significant portions of the constituency had not been disenfranchised.

Status-quo, incumbent-friendly politics are clearly a factor in keeping these laws on the books. Republicans fear that ex-cons would be more likely to vote for Democrats, while Democrats fear that pushing pushing too hard for restoring voting rights will get them tagged as soft on crime. But such overt political considerations shouldn’t prevent Kentucky from breaking with the past.

Passage of HB 480 would be a step toward true justice for thousands of Kentuckians who have made mistakes, especially by becoming substance abusers, but who are making good and deserve a second chance at full, productive citizenship.

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