FRANKFORT, Ky. - With less than a month remaining in office, Gov. Steve Beshear has signed an executive order restoring the right to vote and hold public office to thousands of felons who have completed their sentences.
The order excludes people convicted of violent or sex crimes, bribery or treason.
Felons who do not meet the criteria can still apply for restoration through the governor's office.
Kentucky had been one of only four states that does not automatically restore felons’ voting rights upon final discharge of their sentence.
“Once an individual has served his or her time and paid all restitution, society expects them to reintegrate into their communities and become law-abiding and productive citizens,” Beshear said at a Capitol press conference. “A key part of that transition is the right to vote.”
Under the Kentucky Constitution, persons convicted of a felony are stripped of their rights to vote, hold public office, own a firearm or serve on a jury.
The Brennan Center for Justice estimates that 180,000 felons in Kentucky have served out their sentence but still do not have the right to vote.
“What (Beshear) has done is the best possible example of democracy in action,” said former state Rep. Jesse Crenshaw, a Lexington lawyer who has pushed for restoration of voting rights for years. “If you ask individuals to work hard pay taxes be good citizens, it is only fair that they should be able to do what other citizens do.”
Beshear also called for a constitutional amendment as a permanent fix. He called for the legislature to take action on the issue and take “it out of any future governor’s hands.”
House Republican Floor Leader Jeff Hoover questioned the legality of the Governor’s action.
“I have long been a supporter of allowing low-level, non-violent felony offenders to have their voting rights restored once they have paid their debt to society, said Hoover in a statement.
“My issue with today’s action is not about the restoration of those rights, but the fact once again this Governor has chosen to usurp the authority of the Kentucky General Assembly through executive order.”
In a statement, Gov.-elect Matt Bevin’s transition team said Beshear's executive order is being evaluated.
"Governor-Elect Bevin has said many times that the restoration of voting rights for certain offenders is the right thing to do," the statement read. "We were notified of the executive order by Governor Beshear’s staff only a few minutes before the announcement and were not provided a copy of the executive order until after the press conference.”