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Poor People’s Campaign Talks Felon Voting Rights With Gov. Bevin

Ryland Barton

Gov. Matt Bevin met with members of the Kentucky Poor People’s campaign after the group rallied outside his office for nearly an hour on Tuesday.

The Poor People’s Campaign was protesting an emergency regulation signed by Bevin that limits visitors’ access to the Capitol.

But in the 20 minute meeting with Bevin, the group’s leaders elevated issues like school shootings, health care and voting rights for people who have felony records.

Credit Jonese Franklin
Members of the Poor People’s Campaign wait to speak with Gov. Matt Bevin in Frankfort.

Bevin reiterated his stance that lawmakers should be the ones tasked with changing the state’s constitutional ban on voting for felons.

“I don’t have the ability, I wish I did, to fix this with the stroke of a pen,” Bevin said. “It is a constitutional issue. The only people who can change this are the people of Kentucky.”

Because Kentucky’s constitution permanently bans people with felonies from voting, a permanent change to the policy would have to be an amendment to the constitution.

Constitutional amendments have to receive 60 percent of votes in both the state House and Senate and then be approved by a majority of Kentucky voters on Election Day. They do not get signed by the governor.

But a temporary reprieve has been enacted before — as one of his last acts in office, former Gov. Steve Beshear signed an executive order granting voting rights to about 180,000 people with felony records.

Bevin rescinded that executive order as one of his first acts in office, saying that instead of the executive order — which could be rescinded by future governors — lawmakers should pass a constitutional amendment.

The measure has not gained momentum in the legislature, though bills restoring voting rights have been filed during each legislative session since, including this year.

Activists with the Poor People’s Campaign asked Bevin to “re-enact” Beshear’s executive order.

Bevin said restoration of voting rights has “nothing to do with poverty.”

“There are people who grew up in poverty and people who didn’t grow up in poverty who are trying to get their rights back,” Bevin said.

According to the Sentencing Project, more than nine percent of Kentucky’s adult population can’t vote because of a felony conviction. That includes 26 percent of the state’s African-American population.

After Florida voters struck down their state’s permanent voting ban for people with felony convictions, Kentucky and Iowa are the only states to do so.

The only way to restore voting rights is to appeal to the governor or to have your record expunged — which is only available to people who have been convicted of certain Class D felonies.

Ryland Barton is the Managing Editor for Collaboratives. He's covered politics and state government for NPR member stations KWBU in Waco and KUT in Austin. He has a bachelor's degree from the University of Chicago and a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas. He grew up in Lexington.

Email Ryland at
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