Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear fulfilled another of his “week one” campaign promises on Thursday by signing an executive order to automatically restore voting rights to people with nonviolent felonies who have completed their sentences. He estimated the move would allow more than 140,000 people to vote.
There are an estimated 312,000 disenfranchised voters in Kentucky, which equates to about 7 percent of the population.
With this act, Beshear revived an issue his father, former Gov. Steve Beshear, attempted to settle near the end of his term. The elder Beshear’s executive order would have allowed nearly 180,000 people convicted of felonies to resume voting. But former Republican Gov. Matt Bevin who served between the Beshear governorships, quickly overturned that with his own executive order.
The younger Beshear’s act has the potential to change Kentucky’s electorate by introducing individuals to the voting pool who care about different issues and have different priorities than most of those who voted in last month’s election. Felony disenfranchisement disproportionately affects African Americans, about one in four of whom cannot vote in Kentucky due to past convictions.
“Today we celebrate, we commend this historic moment,” said Kentucky NAACP President Raoul Cunningham. “We must realize that this executive order is the first step. Those of us who have been advocating for felony voting rights must now work to make sure those affected by this executive order get to the polls and exercise their rights to vote.”
Kentucky is one of only two states that permanently bans people with felony convictions from voting again. The new Secretary of State, Michael Adams, said before his election that he would support making it possible for potential voters’ rights to be restored without an application to the governor, which is what the process currently requires.
In a statement issued Thursday afternoon, Republican House Speaker David Osborne said his office was reviewing the details of Beshear’s executive order.
“Initially, we have concerns about the use of an executive order to effectively amend our state constitution,” he wrote. “Regardless of which side you are on — and it is important to note that a version of this has already passed the House with support from members of both parties — ultimately only the Kentucky voter has the authority to amend our constitution.”