For Chris Page of Bowling Green, having his voting rights restored after serving prison time for a felony conviction was a way of reclaiming visibility and a voice in the electoral process.
“I think it’s significant for me because it makes you feel like you’re part of the American dream,” he said.
While many people think of the American dream as a home and a white picket fence, Page said that, for him, voting is part of that picture.
Page said he will vote for the first time in November since his incarceration. He is trying to learn about candidates who will be on the ballot to prepare himself. “It’s kind of going to be a welcome-home party as far as a personal journey of mine,” he said.
Legislation that would let voters decide to make it easier for convicted felons to have their voting rights restored has been pre-filed for consideration in the 2015 legislative session.
Several bills with similar structure would place a constitutional amendment on the ballot letting voters decide if they want to allow felons to automatically regain the right to vote after the end of their sentence, parole and probation, with the exception of some offenses.
Those exceptions include intentional killing or sexual offenses.
In 2010, there were about 180,984 convicted felons in the state who had served their sentences but were without voting rights, according to a Legislative Research Commission assessment. It is unknown how many would be eligible for their voting rights to be automatically restored if a constitutional amendment were to be approved.
Page said people should have their voting rights automatically restored after their probation period is over. He was delayed in requesting his voting rights by about a year because he didn’t know the correct end date of his probation period.
Page was incarcerated between August and December 2007 on a charge of intent to distribute a controlled substance. He came off probation in 2012.
While the process to restore his voting rights was fairly simple – he was notified of his application’s approval about two months after submitting it – it can be daunting, he said.
“It can be very daunting and intimidating to some people,” Page said.
Having those rights restored automatically would empower more people to get out and vote, he said.
In 2013, 936 felons had their voting rights restored out of 1,133 who applied, according to Todd Henson, public information officer for the Kentucky Department of Corrections.
So far this year, 305 felons have had their voting rights restored out of 686 who applied, he said.
Upon their release from incarceration, felons in Kentucky are given an application to have their voting rights restored as part of their release packet. They also can get an application from a parole officer, online or by contacting the Department of Corrections to have a copy mailed to them, Henson said.
Those applications are first submitted to the DOC, where they are checked for accuracy, Henson said. They are then sent to the commonwealth’s attorney in the county either where the person lives or where the crime occurred.
The commonwealth’s attorney has the option to make a statement on individual applications before they are sent to the governor’s office, where an ultimate decision is made on whether the application is approved, he said.
Sen. Gerald A. Neal, D-Louisville, said he has filed legislation in the Senate for a number of years allowing for a vote on a constitutional amendment restoring voting rights for people convicted of felonies and has pre-filed a bill again for the 2015 legislative session. Similar legislation has been pre-filed by House Minority Floor Leader Jeff Hoover, R-Jamestown, and Rep. Darryl T. Owens, D-Louisville.
Neal said he considers it crucial that people be allowed to vote after they have paid their debt to society.
“It appears to me that, if a person has paid for that, then they should be welcomed back into the arena of good citizenship,” he said.
Neal said he believes that as the issue remains in the public eye, more people will support voting rights for former criminals.
“What we should be doing is expanding the franchise and allowing people to participate in that which affects their future,” he said.
Last year, a bill that would have put the issue on the ballot passed in the House of Representatives as well as in the Senate, but changes were made to the bill in the Senate with which House members did not concur.
Those changes included adding a five-year waiting period before a felon’s voting rights could be restored and preventing restoration of voting rights, except by executive pardon, if the individual’s voting rights were previously restored and afterward that person was convicted of any felony.
Neal said the Senate changes would have rendered the bill ineffective.
Historically, taking away the right of people convicted of felonies to vote was one of the mechanisms used to keep many black people and poor white people from voting, Neal said
Today, the restriction has the same effect if not the same intent, he said.
In 2010, 5.85 million Americans were prohibited from voting because of laws against felons, according to a report from The Sentencing Project, an advocacy group that works to reform sentencing policy.
Black Americans are four times more likely to lose their voting rights than the rest of the adult population, according to the report. More than one in five black adults is disenfranchised in Kentucky, Virginia and Florida.
In those three states, as well as Iowa, felons and ex-felons permanently lose their right to vote without a pardon from the governor, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures website.
Rules about voting for those convicted of felonies differ across the states. In Maine and Vermont, for instance, felons do not lose their right to vote even during incarceration, according to the NCSL website.
Some people in Bowling Green are working to spread the word about people convicted of felonies losing their right to vote.
Jason Brown of Bowling Green works with the organization Kentuckians For The Commonwealth to inform people about the obstacles that people convicted of felonies face in seeking to have their voting rights restored.
Brown said people are usually surprised to hear that felons are not able to vote after serving their sentences.
“As a general rule, the assumption is that once you serve your time, everything goes back to the way it was,” he said.
Brown is a minister and said advocating for those individuals to have their voting rights restored is part of his convictions as a Christian.
“I absolutely believe in redemption and reconciliation and second chances,” he said.
Alan Smith of Bowling Green also works with KFTC on voter empowerment initiatives, both getting the word out to people and working with individuals who need help getting their voting rights restored.
Smith said he works with voter empowerment efforts out of a desire to see more fairness and equity.
“We’re trying to move past sort of the 19th century,” he said.
Voter support for a constitutional amendment will depend on how the issue is framed, Smith said.
Some may see the issue as being soft on crime, or extending voting rights to those who have broken the social contract, he said.
He sees it as being a good move for democracy. “What we’re talking about is people being reintegrated into their communities,” Smith said.
Sen. Mike Wilson, R-Bowling Green, said he supported the bill to put the issue on the ballot that passed in the Senate this year.
“There’s a lot of young people out there that make some stupid mistakes,” he said.
In the case of felonies, those young people end up paying for those mistakes for the rest of their lives, Wilson said.
The legislation approved in the Senate this year would have instituted an additional five-year waiting period before felons could have their voting rights restored.
That change to the legislation was an important part of building consensus around the bill in the Senate, Wilson said.
“There were those within the Senate that wouldn’t vote for it any other way,” he said.
Such a probation period will likely be necessary in any bill approved by the Senate, Wilson said.
Many members of the Senate felt they were demonized in the media by those who wanted the bill to remain unchanged, Wilson said.
That may make some members reluctant to vote for similar legislation in the future. “I think there’s been some damage done in the Senate,” he said.
Rep. Jody Richards, D-Bowling Green, said he has supported and even co-sponsored similar bills in the past.
In the House, the bill has bipartisan support, he said.
In the House, it was approved with a vote of 82-14, and in the Senate, the altered bill was approved by a vote of 34-4.
Sen. Rand Paul, R-Bowling Green, this year testified in favor of the bill during a hearing in front of a Kentucky Senate committee.
At the time, Paul said he sees restoring felon voting rights as part of the larger issue of changing the country’s approach to the war on drugs. He said he hopes that discussing the restoration of felon voting rights is the beginning of a conversation about changing policies on things such as felony drug convictions and record expungement.
Richards said he sees a groundswell of support rising for the legislation.
“I think it has a very good chance, probably the best chance it has ever had of passing,” he said.