Restaurant manager Jason Marvin Smith of Elizabethtown said he accepts full responsibility for a felony that landed him on probation as an 18-year-old for possessing a half-ounce of marijuana while driving his car with an improperly stowed gun. But what riles him is that after completing his probation, he still could not vote. “I was in civil purgatory,” said Smith, now 32, who lost his voting rights for years before a governor’s pardon restored them last year. Kentucky is one of only four states that permanently bar all felons from the polls — unless they get a pardon from the governor. Smith and others are fighting to change that.
For five straight years the Kentucky House of Representatives has passed a bill that would let voters decide whether to amend the state constitution so that felons convicted of all but the most serious crimes would automatically have their voting rights restored when they complete probation or parole or serve out their sentence.
The League of Women Voters of Kentucky estimated in a 2006 report that about 168,000 people would be affected. Proponents, including the league, Catholic Conference of Kentucky and the NAACP, say that voting is the most fundamental expression of citizenship and that felons who have paid their dues should not be permanently disenfranchised. They also say Kentucky’s restrictions disproportionately disenfranchise blacks and are a vestige of Jim Crow laws intended to keep African Americans from voting.