Frankfort, KY – In the last three legislative sessions, Rep. Jesse Crenshaw has sought passage of a constitutional amendment allowing automatic restoration of voting rights for felons who have done their time. Each year, by increasingly wider margins, the Lexington Democrat's bill has sailed through the House, only to quietly die in the Senate. But Crenshaw's not giving up. He's back with the bill again.
"It is a bill that would allow, with a small number of exceptions, ex-offenders who have been previously convicted of a felony, to have their rights to vote restored," says Crenshaw.
The exceptions are ex-felons who served time for intentional murder, rape, sodomy and sexual contact with a minor. They would still have to seek a partial pardon from the governor - the current method of restoring voting rights for all ex-felons. Crenshaw says Gov. Beshear has simplified the current process, but Kentucky and Virginia are the only states still requiring partial pardons for ex-felons.
"There used to be three," says Crenshaw. "Florida passed - not passed, I shouldn't say. The governor, through executive order, made it where everybody's automatically restored."
In the past, Crenshaw's bill has drawn fire from prosecutors, like Ray Larson in Lexington. But this year, Dave Stengel of Jefferson County was the only prosecutor who testified on the bill, and he's for it.
"There's some states that actually have voting booths in the prison," says Stengel. "I think that's going a little bit far. But at the same time, it is just totally counterproductive to keep these people disenfranchised for the rest of their lives and then with the other hand say, we want you back as a working member of society."
Janssen Wilhoit is a convicted felon who sought and received a partial gubernatorial pardon restoring his voting rights. Now, through his work with the Lexington Rescue Mission, he helps other ex-felons achieve the same goal. Wilhoit, who's college educated, didn't find the process all that hard, but knows that's not the case for everyone.
"I was fortunate to have the knowledge and wherewithal to apply for my voting rights," says Wilhoit. "For most, they leave prison without any form of ID and no idea of how to get started putting their lives back together again, much less acquire and submit the needed paperwork to restore their voting rights."
At least 186,000 Kentuckians can't vote because of past felony convictions. And that concerns Sen. Tom Buford, who would like to see more of them involved in the political process. But Buford, a Nicholasville Republican, isn't sure Rep. Crenshaw's bill is the way to go. For one thing, he doesn't support automatic restoration of voting rights, especially for those who committed violent crimes.
"Should we be restoring their voting rights?" asks Buford. "Because, when we also issue back their voting rights, they have the ability to file and run for office."
Sen. Damon Thayer has an even tougher stance on the issue. The Georgetown Republican says the current process works just fine.
'It's not a cumbersome process," says Thayer. "But it's a process that they must go through and it's a process that I support. And I don't see a need to amend the constitution. And I'm also not for the automatic restoration of felon voting rights. It's just a philosophical position that I have."
That doesn't bode well for supporters of the constitutional amendment, which cleared a House committee 8-0. Thayer chairs the Senate State and Local Government committee, where the bill likely will land, if - as expected - it wins House approval. Thayer has never allowed the bill to be heard during a legislative session, and tells Kentucky Public Radio he's not inclined to alter his position. But Rep. Crenshaw says he won't let that deter him.
"Some things take time," says Crenshaw. "Some things take time!"
For now, the bill awaits a House floor vote.