For many in the Ohio Valley, voting is a choice, a right they are free to exercise if they want to. But for Jackie McGranahan and the more than 175,000 other formerly disenfranchised Kentuckians, this primary election is special. It’s her first chance to vote since 2008.
She won't be going to a voting booth. Elections are a bit different this year because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and most voting in Kentucky is happening by mail. But even though she couldn’t go to the polls with her friends or be handed her ‘I Voted’ sticker, that didn’t stop McGranahan from savoring the moment of voting.
“I filled out the absentee ballot. I signed my name and I waited for my postman to come so I could hand it to him directly from my porch to know that my vote will be counted, that I have a voice,” McGranahan said.
McGranahan lost her right to vote after being convicted of a felony drug-related charge. Until late last year, Kentucky banned people with felony records from voting, even after completing their sentences. Now, Kentucky is catching up to Ohio, West Virginia, and 46 other states, at least temporarily, by allowing some people who have served their sentences after being convicted of a felony to cast a ballot.
Following up on a campaign promise, Kentucky's Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear signed an executive order shortly after taking office, restoring voting rights for people who have served their time for non-violent, non-sexual felony offenses.
McGranahan has been sober and in recovery for more than four years. She works with the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky and said normally she’s the one pushing other people to exercise their right to vote. She said so many people like her know what it’s like to not have a voice in politics.
“I remember on Election Day that everyone was taking pictures of their I voted sticker, and it was all over Facebook,” she said. “And it was really exciting for people, but for me, it was a different feeling. You know, it’s kind of, it’s an empty feeling.”
McGranahan remembers the moment her colleague called her to give her the good news.
“She called to say, ‘Jackie, you can vote.’ And I remember that feeling with tears running down my face that it seemed unreal, but it was so exciting,” she said. “And my heart was filled, completely filled with just excitement, and energy, anticipation.”
McGranahan said the moment was short-lived and bittersweet because so many other people who have been convicted of a felony still can’t vote in Kentucky.
Kate Miller is the advocacy director for the ACLU of Kentucky. She said she’s glad to see the progress that’s been made in the Commonwealth to expand access to voting for more people. But, she doesn’t think Beshear’s executive order goes far enough.
“We don’t think that anyone should lose their right to vote to begin with,” Miller said. “We think that individuals who are currently incarcerated because of felony convictions should be able to vote. And that’s true regardless of what they’re convicted of.”
Miller said a year ago she never thought the state would see progress on the restoration of voting rights for Kentuckians, but she was impressed with one bill proposed in the 2020 legislative session.
“It was the cleanest bill that we’ve seen in a long time,” she said. “I think, ever, in terms of not excluding individuals not having a waiting period, not putting up additional barriers.”
Miller said that the ACLU often has to compromise, but when amending the state constitution there are only so many opportunities. In this year’s General Assembly, there was a bill proposed that would amend the state’s constitution and automatically restore the right to vote for many Kentuckians. The bill was sponsored by Republican Sen. Jimmy Higdon of Marion County and passed out of committee, but ultimately wasn’t put up for a vote in the full legislature.
Miller said there’s nothing more fundamental in a democracy than having the opportunity to weigh in on who the decision-makers are for your community.
Beshear said he does not think everyone who has committed a felony should get back the right to vote. He said in his time as Attorney General, he saw the trauma that violent crimes such as rape, human trafficking, and murder can cause a family and community.
“There are some crimes that are just so bad and the trauma is so severe that I don’t think it’s appropriate to restore those rights,” he said.
It took two Beshear governors to make the change for people like McGranahan. Andy Beshear’s father, former Gov, Steve Beshear, had signed an executive order on his way out of the office in 2015 to restore voting rights to some people with felony records. When former Republican Gov. Matt Bevin took his place in 2015 he quickly rescinded the order. That’s why Beshear wants to see the change made permanent, which would require an amendment to the state’s constitution.
“This is something that is a great step but ought to be enshrined with a constitutional amendment because it ought to become automatic and not depend on who the governor is,” he said.
Because her right to vote isn’t permanent, McGranahan said she wanted to savor the moment of filling in her ballot, not knowing how many more chances she’ll get.
“It’s constant anxiety, knowing that in the back of my mind…like I’m very, I’m extremely excited to vote but then knowing, that this could be the last time,” she said.
Beshear also launched a website where people can check to see if they qualify for having their voting rights automatically restored. Kentuckians can check their voter registration online, and sign up to be able to vote in November. It’s unclear if absentee voting will be expanded in the Ohio Valley for the general election.