Restoring voting rights for felons embraces the American tenet of second chances

Restoring voting rights for felons embraces the American tenet of second chances
© Hill illustration/iStock

Last Thursday, with a stroke of his pen, newly elected Gov. Andy Beshear finally managed to remove Kentucky from the exceedingly short and shameful list of states with lifetime voting bans for individuals with felony records. The historic move, which leaves Iowa as the sole remaining state with such a ban in place, means that another 100,000 Kentuckians can add their names to the voter rolls. While the significance of this measure is obvious for those newly able to access the ballot box, the order should also cheer the entire electorate.

As Kentucky’s previous outlier status highlights, most states restore the right to vote once individuals are released and have completed community supervision (probation or parole), even if they deny the right to vote to incarcerated individuals. This makes intuitive sense. After all, if disenfranchisement is a punishment, why wouldn’t it end with the conclusion of a person’s sentence? Restoring a person’s voting rights – as a recognition of their dignity and rightful place within the wider community – is simply the final step of the reintegration process.

Practically speaking, empirical research suggests that restoring voting rights might decrease reoffending rates by encouraging the formerly incarcerated to become more invested in their communities. One study found that former felons who voted were half as likely to commit a crime in the subsequent three years as those who did not. By reducing crime rates, restoring voting rights saves taxpayers money that is currently spent on repeated stints in prison. Additionally, giving those with felony records a stake in shaping their society and reintegrating them as full citizens helps combat the stigma and alienation these populations endure. 

ADVERTISEMENT

Indeed, laws disenfranchising former felons disproportionately harm those who are already subject to alienation in society — minorities and the poor. Many felony disenfranchisement laws in the United States were expanded at the end of the Civil War when black men received the right to vote. Before Gov. Beshear’s executive order, Kentucky had the highest rate of black disenfranchisement; nearly one in three black males could not vote (versus 1 in 10 adults in the general population). This level of racial disparity should concern us all.

Denying someone the right to vote in perpetuity is an unfair form of permanent probation that penalizes individuals without any meaningful commensurate benefit for society.

We know that right now, efforts to assist those re-entering society from prison are woefully inadequate, as almost two-thirds of Kentuckians under community supervision end up back in prison for probation or parole violations. Restoring the voting rights of these individuals is likely a simple way to improve community supervision results, which is why the American Probation and Parole Association supports it.

This is not the first time the Bluegrass State has tried to address the harms of felony disenfranchisement. In 2015, then-Gov. Steve Beshear (the current governor’s father) signed an executive order to restore voting rights to people with felony records. Unfortunately his successor, then-Gov. Matt Bevin, suspended the order just days after taking office. So while we should celebrate the current governor’s order to restore rights, we should also recognize that his decision can be easily overturned. Codifying Gov. Beshear’s order through legislative action would cement the state’s commitment to reintegrating those who’ve made mistakes in the past. 

The rest of Kentucky’s political community should resist the urge to treat this announcement as a partisan one to be subject to the same acrimony that infects so many other political debates. The benefits of restoration discussed above read like a laundry list of the criminal justice priorities and values of the left and the right alike. Attempting to score political points by undercutting those goals is not worth it. It also would likely fail, since it would place opponents of voting rights at odds with the majority of Kentuckians; one poll found that Kentuckians support automatic restoration by a 2-to-1 margin.

Restoring voting rights for felons embraces the American tenets of new beginnings and second chances. It improves public safety and is fiscally prudent. And as Gov. Beshear reminded us in his inaugural address, it means forgiveness for the “hundred thousand men and women who have done wrong in the past but are doing right now.”

Nila Bala is the criminal justice associate director at the R Street Institute and a former Baltimore assistant public defender. Lars Trautman is a senior criminal justice fellow with the R Street Institute and a former assistant district attorney in Essex County, Massachusetts.