Kentucky’s newly elected Democratic governor, Andy Beshear, signed an executive order on Thursday restoring the vote and the right to hold public office to more than 140,000 residents who have completed sentences for nonviolent felonies, The New York Times informed.
With that move, Kentucky joined a fast-growing movement to return voting rights to former felons, leaving Iowa as the only state that strips all former felons of the right to cast a ballot.
Since 1997, 24 states have approved some type of measure to ease voting bans, according to the Sentencing Project, a Washington group that advocates criminal justice policy changes. Kentucky joins Virginia, Florida, Nevada and other states that have extended voting rights in the last few years, the Times noted.
Beshear said the order would apply to more than half of the estimated 240,000 Kentuckians with felonies in their past, as well as those who complete their sentences in the future. While he believes in justice, he said, “I also believe in second chances.”
“We’re talking about moms and dads, neighbors and friends, people who have met and taken on one of the greatest challenges anyone can face: overcoming the past,” the governor said. “It is an injustice that their ability to rejoin society by casting a vote on Election Day is automatically denied.”
Voting-rights advocates called Kentucky’s decision a significant advance in a campaign to return the vote to felons that began decades ago and has won widespread attention and support only recently.
However, while the most recent changes have returned voting rights to well over 1.5 million people nationwide, it remains unclear how they will affect the political process. A handful of academic studies suggest that former prisoners register and vote at rates well below national averages.
Beshear said his order did not extend to those who committed violent felonies because some offenses, such as rape and murder, were too heinous to forgive. The order also excludes those who were convicted under federal law or the laws of other states, although they would be able to apply individually for restoration of their rights.