There’s a growing bipartisan consensus in Congress that restoring voting rights for people with felony convictions is a crucial aspect of criminal justice reform. But governors have a massive amount of discretion in deciding whether to reinstate voting rights for millions of ex-felons who are still denied the right to vote, as recent decisions in Kentucky and Iowa illustrate. On Tuesday, Kentucky’s outgoing Democratic governor, Steve Beshear, signed an executive order that would automatically restore voting rights to at least 140,000 former felons who have served their sentences. Kentucky is just one of just three states, along with Florida and Iowa, that permanently disenfranchises all people with felony convictions. Up until now, a Kentuckian with a felony conviction would have to individually petition the governor to have his or her rights restored. As in other states, permanent felon disenfranchisement disproportionately affects racial minorities. An estimated 1 in 5 African-Americans in Kentucky are disenfranchised, compared to 1 in 13 nationally.
“All of our society will be better off if we actively work to help rehabilitate those who have made a mistake,” Beshear said. “And the more we do that, the more the entire society will benefit.”
The reprieve could be short-lived, however. Kentucky’s incoming governor, Republican Matt Bevin, could sign another executive order that would undo Beshear’s mass voting rights restoration. Though Bevin has said in the past that he supports the automatic restoration of voting rights, there’s no telling what intra-party pressure could do.
“Governor Beshear’s actions are not permanent,”ACLU Program Director Kate Miller wrote in an email to The Huffington Post. “Since felon voting rights restrictions are enshrined in the Kentucky Constitution, it will take legislative action to start the process to make these changes permanent law.”