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Governor Opens Ballot Box To Some Former Felons

Josh James
Glendover polling location

Outgoing Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear delivered a last minute win to voting rights advocates Tuesday by issuing an executive order paving the way for some former felons to cast ballots.

For a room brimming with lawmakers and activists who have labored to restore voting rights to felons, some for more than a decade, the announcement in Frankfort was a watershed moment.

"Congratulations to many of the tens of thousands of people who will soon become engaged members of society once again," Beshear said, as onlookers broke into applause.

Clutching a briefcase with his application tucked inside, Michael Hiser made his way to the stage to thank the governor.

Credit Josh James / WUKY
Gov. Steve Beshear chats with voting rights activist and former felon Michael Hiser

"I've got it right here," he said, raising it aloft. "It's life-changing."

Hiser, who served time for a string of petty thefts, drug addiction, and other crimes over 25 years but emerged from prison to earn three degrees, is now among the approximately 170,000 who will be eligible to have their voting rights reinstated, provided they’ve completed their sentences and have no pending criminal charges. The order does not extend, however, to ex-offenders convicted of violent offenses, sex crimes, bribery, or treason.

Longtime vocal voting rights champion former state Rep. Jesse Crenshaw said it’s time Kentucky joined the 46 other states that guarantee automatic restoration and welcome ex-inmates back into the fold.  

"If we expect them to feel like they're full citizens, we have to treat them like they're full citizens," he argued.

Beshear, who leaves office on Dec. 8, told reporters he postponed the executive order until the final weeks of his tenure to avoid making the issue a political football during the governor’s race – all the while continuing to lobby for a more permanent fix.

"I've consistently supported legislative efforts to permit a constitutional referendum on restoration of rights, and truth be told I wanted to allow that process to play out, but those efforts have failed time and time again," the governor said during his remarks.

Without that constitutional change approved by voters the order’s fate is subject to reversal at the hands of subsequent governors. Gov.-elect Matt Bevin has signaled support for the restoration of voting and gun rights for ex-inmates, but past voting rights legislation has encountered resistance in the Republican-led Senate, where lawmakers have attached additional waiting periods and other restrictions.

Prior to Tuesday’s executive order, former felons were required to individually petition the governor for restoration. Now individuals who have served their time can submit restoration forms to the Department of Corrections and, upon approval, receive Restoration of Civil Rights certificates in the mail. 

Josh James fell in love with college radio at Western Kentucky University's student station, New Rock 92 (now Revolution 91.7). After working as a DJ and program director, he knew he wanted to come home to Lexington and try his hand in public radio.
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