Tuesday’s Election Boosts Voting Rights for People With Past Convictions
A claimed victory in Kentucky and wins in Virginia mean hundreds of thousands of people could have their right to vote restored.
Voting rights advocates are celebrating today as Kentucky and Virginia appear poised to undo a legacy of discrimination at the ballot box.
In Kentucky, one of just two states that still permanently disenfranchise people with felony convictions, Democrat Andy Beshear claimed an upset victory in the governor’s race, though the incumbent governor, Matt Bevin, has yet to concede.
In Virginia, another state that has recently wrestled with the issue of voting rights, Democrats won majorities in both houses of the state legislature, giving them control of the state government for the first time since 1993.
Beshear, who is currently Kentucky’s attorney general, vowed during his campaign and during his victory speech Tuesday to immediately issue an executive order to restore the voting rights of the more than 140,000 Kentucky residents convicted of nonviolent felonies who have completed their sentences. “If they have done their time and served their sentence, they ought to get those rights back,” he said in an interview in May.
Steve Beshear, Andy Beshear’s father, who preceded Bevin as governor, restored the vote to tens of thousands of people by executive order. But after Bevin was elected governor in 2015, he promptly rescinded their right to vote.
As of 2016, roughly 312,000 Kentuckians were disenfranchised for life because of a felony conviction, according to a study by the Sentencing Project.
Andy Beshear’s proposed executive order would significantly alter the racial makeup of the state’s electorate. Kentucky disenfranchises 26 percent of all Black adults, compared to just eight percent of the rest of the population.
Tayna Fogle, an organizer with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, told The Appeal that she remembers the hurdles she had to navigate to get her voting rights restored after serving time for a drug conviction. She has spent years fighting to help others get their civil rights restored.
“I’m so thrilled,” she said. “We expect this new governor to really restore all of us holistically and allow folks to get the polls … And then we’ll see how Kentucky really changes.”
Still, some voting advocates have lamented that Beshear’s promised executive order won’t go far enough. Because it would only apply to felonies considered nonviolent, Kentuckians who have completed their sentences for violent felonies would be left to apply for individual pardons through the current burdensome process.
In Virginia, Governor Terry McAuliffe made no distinction between types of offenses when he issued an executive order in 2016 that restored people’s voting rights upon completion of their sentences. When that order was overturned by the Virginia Supreme Court, McAuliffe shifted his efforts to restoring rights individually. Current Governor Ralph Northam has done the same. He said in October that his office had restored voting rights to 22,205 people since he took office.
With their new legislative majorities, Democrats may now pass legislation to end the state’s lifetime ban on voting, codifying McAuliffe’s executive action into law. “The governor should not be involved, it should be automatic,” McAuliffe told the Appeal in September.
State lawmakers will likely have support from incoming prosecutors who campaigned on expanding voting rights. Three prosecutors who joined a legal challenge to McAuliffe’s rights restoration policies in 2016 lost this year; their stance on voting rights was a major issue in their reelection bids. Theo Stamos and Raymond Morrogh, the incumbents in Arlington and Fairfax counties, lost in the June Democratic primaries. In Albemarle County, Commonwealth’s Attorney Robert Tracci lost to longtime public defender Jim Hingeley on Tuesday.
Democrats in Virginia’s legislature, who now hold majorities, could also go further by pushing to restore the right to vote to people who are on probation and parole, as new Democratic state governments did this year in Colorado and Nevada—or to end felony disenfranchisement altogether.
Parisa Dehghani-Tafti, who was elected Arlington County commonwealth’s attorney on Tuesday, said during her campaign that no one should be stripped of the right to vote over a criminal conviction. “If what we are interested in is safety and justice, it’s hard to make a rational argument that either of these things are served by denying prisoners the right to vote,” she told The Appeal in February. “And we should never forget that these laws are the vestiges of Jim Crow.”
In January, a constitutional amendment that would have abolished disenfranchisement for people convicted of felonies in Virginia died in the GOP-run legislature. The amendment had support from the ACLU of Virginia and the League of Women Voters of Virginia. To be enacted, constitutional amendments in Virginia need to be approved by the state legislature in two separate years with a statewide election in between, and then must be approved by voters.
With a Democratic General Assembly, Virginia lawmakers could also work to pass other voting reforms like automatic voter registration, early voting, Election Day registration, and gerrymandering restrictions.
In Colorado, people currently on parole were allowed to vote for the first time on Tuesday. The state passed a law this year that went into effect in July, restoring voting rights to 11,467 people on parole.
Thomas Hernandez, a 44-year-old Aurora, Colorado, resident who was incarcerated for drug-related offenses and then spent years on probation, parole, and supervised release, told the Appeal that he advocated for the bill this year because he knows what it’s like to be denied the right to vote.
“When you’re in a situation where you have no voice, it’s part of a mindset,” he said. “It’s like, I’m free but I’m really not free. My opinion and my voice don’t count.”
On Tuesday, Hernandez described an emotional scene as he watched as one man who is currently on parole and would have been barred from voting as recently as last year’s midterms, cast a ballot.
“When I was on paper, I didn’t have that opportunity,” he said. “He actually got his voice back for that moment in time.”