When it comes to people without a lot of political power, people with felony convictions are near the top of an increasingly long list. All but two states (Vermont and Maine) temporarily strip people convicted of felonies of their right to vote. Three states (Florida, Kentucky and Iowa) permanently strip people with felony convictions of the right to vote. In between these extremes, the rest of the states automatically restore the right to vote at varying stages of rehabilitation: after release, after parole or after probation. Here in Kentucky, people convicted of felonies lose their voting rights permanently. The only way get the right to vote back is to apply to the governor and, according to the application for restoration of voting rights, that decision is solely within the governor’s “prerogative.”
Felons today aren’t what felons used to be. Back in the good old days, you’d have to kill or seriously hurt someone, steal a bunch of stuff or try to rob someone to become a felon. But, nowadays, stealing something worth $300 (a crappy mountain bike, a decent gas grill) is a felony. The “War on Drugs” has turned people struggling with addiction into felons all across the commonwealth. According to The Sentencing Project, 9.1 percent of Kentuckians can’t vote because of Kentucky’s draconian practice of permanently stripping voting rights from people convicted of felonies. (This is up from a 2.2 percent disenfranchisement rate in 1980.) Only Mississippi and Florida disenfranchise a higher percentage of their citizens.
The combination of Kentucky’s extreme practices around felon disenfranchisement and its racially biased enforcement of Kentucky’s drug laws make a uniquely toxic cocktail for African-American Kentuckians. Depending on your perspective, we are either the worst or best at making sure African-Americans can’t vote: a jaw-dropping 26 percentof voting-age African-American Kentuckians cannot vote because of a felony conviction.