A growing movement to return voting rights to former felons is scheduled on Thursday to add a prominent convert: Kentucky, one of only two states that still strip all former felons of the right to cast a ballot. The state’s newly elected governor, Andy Beshear, promised in his inauguration speech on Tuesday to sign an order restoring the vote to more than 100,000 of the estimated 240,000 Kentuckians who have completed felony sentences. He said that they “have done wrong in the past but are doing right now,” and that “they deserve to participate in our great democracy.” Voting-rights advocates called the move 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.
While recent changes have returned voting rights to 1.5 million people nationwide, is unclear how they will affect the political process. Some studies suggest that former prisoners register and vote at rates well below national averages. Andy Beshear’s father, former Gov. Steve Beshear, signed a voting-rights-restoration order when he left office in 2015, but successor Matt Bevin revoked it. Andy Beshear defeated Bevin last month by barely 5,000 votes. (The family of a man pardoned by Bevin this week for a homicide and other crimes in a fatal home invasion raised $21,500 at a political fundraiser last year to retire debt from Bevin’s 2015 gubernatorial campaign, the Louisville Courier-Journal reports.) Beshear’s order leaves Iowa as the only state with a total ban on voting by former felons. Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds supports re-enfranchising former felons, but the legislature has not acted. Since 1997, 24 states have approved measures to ease voting bans, says Marc Mauer of the Sentencing Project.