Posted on November 6, 2018

Why So Many Kentuckians Are Barred from Voting on Tuesday, and for Life

Michael Wines, New York Times, November 4, 2018

Stephon Harbin leans Democratic but says he resents being pigeonholed in one party. {snip}


But Mr. Harbin, who is 47, cannot run for office. Twenty-nine years ago, he was arrested for selling cocaine — a scheme, he said, to pay for his freshman year in engineering school at the University of Louisville. The ensuing felony conviction, and another that followed two years later, stripped him of his political rights for life.


Nationwide, some 6.2 million citizens cannot vote or hold office because they have felony records. But only Kentucky, Iowa and Florida impose lifetime bans, and polls indicate that Floridians are poised to approve a constitutional amendment on Tuesday that would restore rights to 1.4 million residents who have completed their sentences.

Since 1990, changing attitudes have led many other states to ease bans on political participation by those with felony records.

Kentucky is an outlier. Nearly one in 10 of the state’s adults, and one in four African-Americans, has a felony record that bans them from voting for life, according to The Sentencing Project, a criminal justice advocacy group. It is the nation’s highest rate of black disenfranchisement, the group says, and among African-American males like Mr. Harbin, the rate is considered even higher: an estimated one in three.

Those astounding rates are the product of the tough-on-crime ethos of the 1980s and 1990s, when crushing penalties were imposed for nonviolent violations like low-volume drug sales and failure to pay alimony.

The share of voting-age Kentuckians with felony records rose nearly fourfold from 1980 to 2010. Among the state’s black residents, it grew nearly sevenfold. {snip}

But politicians have been whipsawed between the progressive impulses of the state’s cities and its traditional culture. In 2015, Kentucky’s departing Democratic governor issued an executive order restoring voting rights to 140,000 residents with nonviolent felony records, only to see his Republican successor reverse the edict shortly after taking office. The state legislature voted in 2016 to erase records of the least serious felonies, but only after a costly and sometimes arduous expungement process. In two years, the state has granted expungements in only 1,663 cases, and denied them in another 171.

Senator Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader, staked out an unequivocal position on voting rights for those with felony records earlier this year. {snip}

“Voting is a privilege,” he said. “Those who break our laws should not dilute the vote of law-abiding citizens.”

Political scientists suggest that Mr. McConnell might never have attained the Senate had those with felony records been allowed to vote when he first sought the seat in 1984. An analysis of that campaign in 2002 concluded that Mr. McConnell’s 5,200-vote victory in that razor-thin race would have been converted to a narrow loss had felons been allowed to cast ballots.

Supporters of restoring voting rights argue that banning those with felony records from casting ballots removes an important incentive for them to rebuild their lives.


Removing the political rights of one in four African-American voters cannot help but have an impact on a neighborhood and its people, said State Senator Gerald A. Neal, who represents part of Louisville’s largely African-American West End. The smaller a community’s voice, the harder it is to get streets paved and trash collected, and the more its citizens feel powerless, he said.


“They don’t take away your right to pay taxes,” he said. “They’re taking money from me, but not giving me the right to say what my money is used for. It makes all the difference, because you feel as if your voice don’t matter, know what I’m saying? And that’s the mind-set of a lot of people. They feel their voice doesn’t matter.”


Mr. Reily said when he ran for Metro Council a few years ago, he met several people who were fully informed about the election.

“When I asked them for their vote, they said they couldn’t give it to me,” he said. “Not because they were voting for my opponents in a crowded primary. Because they couldn’t vote, period.”