FRANKFORT, Ky. (CN) – Capping off a busy first week as Kentucky’s 63rd governor, Democrat Andy Beshear signed an executive order Thursday to reinstate voting rights for over 140,000 people convicted of nonviolent felonies.
“These are people who once stood inside confining walls looking out,” Beshear said upon signing the order, “and now years after they paid their debts on Election Day they’re still forced to stand outside the voting booth looking in. That needs to change.”
Previously, the state imposed a lifetime voting ban for anyone convicted of a felony, and the only way to appeal the ban was to petition the governor on an individual basis.
Iowa is now the only remaining state in the county that lacks an automatic process for the restoration of voting rights following the completion of a felony sentence.
Beshear, who promised swift and decisive action in the run-up to November’s gubernatorial election, has followed through in the first days of his term.
The newly installed governor highlighted the importance of reestablishing voting rights for convicted criminals and touted Thursday’s order during his inauguration speech on Tuesday.
“My faith teaches me to treat others with dignity and respect. My faith also teaches forgiveness,” he said. “That’s why on Thursday, I will sign an executive order restoring voting rights to over 100,000 men and women who have done wrong in the past but are doing right now.”
“They deserve to participate in our great democracy,” Beshear added. “By taking this step, by restoring these voting rights, we declare that everyone in Kentucky counts. We all matter.”
Nonprofit group The Sentencing Project has reported that over 312,000 felons are disenfranchised in the Bluegrass State, and the executive order restores voting rights to over a third of them.
The order said more than 140,000 Kentuckians have completed their sentences for nonviolent felonies but remain unable to vote, partly because the current process is needlessly time-consuming. It called the restoration of the right to vote “an important aspect of promoting rehabilitation and reintegration into society to become law-abiding and productive citizens.”
As for exclusions, people convicted of treason, bribery in an election, or violent offenses as defined under numerous Kentucky statutes will be ineligible for reinstatement of their voting rights under the order.
Courthouse News spoke by phone with Kate Miller, advocacy director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky, on Thursday afternoon.
“We are thrilled about the opportunity for Kentuckians who have had their voting rights denied [being given] the ability to immediately register to vote,” Miller said, “and we remain committed to fighting for everyone’s voting rights.”
Miller spoke about the idea of people becoming increasingly concerned about the voting rights of convicted criminals over the past decade, and said Beshear’s continued advocacy for the rights of disenfranchised voters “absolutely could have played a role” in November’s election.
While she applauded Beshear’s efforts, Miller said the state still has work to do. She pointed to legislation in other parts of the country that allows for immediate reinstatement of voting rights to felons upon completion of their sentences.
“We are certainly advancing,” Miller said, “but we still have a very long way to go. … We’re not catching up to the rest of the country but this is a historic step in the right direction.”
Thursday’s executive order is one of two signed by Beshear since his inauguration on Tuesday. The first installed a new state Board of Education.
The ousted board members sued Beshear on Wednesday, but were denied an emergency injunction by a circuit court judge who claimed the governor’s actions “fall within the ambit of the governor’s temporary-reorganization-outside-of-session power.”
Beshear’s father and former governor Steve Beshear signed an order similar to the one inked by Beshear on Thursday, near the end of his term in 2015.
However, that order was rescinded by Republican Matt Bevin just over a month later, when he was elected to his first and only term as the state’s governor.
At the time, Bevin said he felt restoring voting rights to those with felony convictions was best left to the Legislature.
The younger Beshear narrowly defeated incumbent Bevin in November. Bevin demand a recanvass of votes before he eventually conceded more than a week after Election Day.