Civil rights groups take on lawsuit to restore felons' voting rights in Kentucky
KENTUCKY – Fair Elections Center and the Kentucky Equal Justice Center have joined a lawsuit challenging Kentucky's arbitrary process for voting rights restoration for felons. The lawsuit is brought on behalf of four felons.
Kentucky is one of three remaining states that deny the right to vote to all former felons until they petition for rights restoration. Just yesterday Florida dropped off that list when its voting rights restoration system became non-arbitrary by virtue of a recently passed state constitutional amendment. According to the Sentencing Project, as of 2016, Kentucky had an estimated 242,987 felons who were still disenfranchised after completing their full sentences including parole and probation, or 9.14% of the state's voting-age population.
"With Florida adopting a non-arbitrary voting rights restoration system, Kentucky is fighting an increasingly lonely battle to preserve a 19th century system that forces American citizens to plead for restoration of their voting rights," said Jon Sherman, Senior Counsel at Fair Elections Center. "This lawsuit gives state officials and legislators an opportunity to reform a broken and unconstitutional system which excludes hundreds of thousands of people from our democracy, even if they have already done everything the criminal justice system required of them."
Kentucky's voting rights restoration process requires felons who have completed their full sentences to submit an application for restoration to the Department of Corrections' Division of Probation and Parole. The Division screens the applications and forwards them to the governor who has unconstrained power to grant or deny restoration with no rules, laws, or criteria governing these determinations.
Without any rules, felons are subjected to arbitrary decision-making and the risk of biased treatment, violating the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, according to the lawsuit.
"The right to vote is a fundamental right, probably the most fundamental right. Courts have been very clear: fundamental rights cannot be subject to the arbitrary whims of government officials. Kentucky's arbitrary system now excludes 9% of eligible voters because of a felony conviction, even after they've paid their debt to society in full. We aim to fix this injustice with this lawsuit," said Ben Carter, Senior Counsel at the Kentucky Equal Justice Center.
The process also lacks any time limits for when the Department of Corrections or the governor must take action. This delay has created a backlog of applications in Kentucky. As of March 2018, there was a backlog of 1,459 restoration of civil rights applications.
"I initially brought the lawsuit because I believe in the Constitution. My family fought for those rights; my ninth-generation grandfather fought in the American Revolution. He would be turning over in his grave if he knew my right to vote was at the mercy of a government official," said plaintiff in the case, Deric Lostutter.
"If people take responsibility for their mistakes and complete their sentences, they shouldn't have to beg the government to regain their right to vote as American citizens," said Stephon Harbin, another plaintiff in the case.
Kentucky's arbitrary rights restoration process violates the U.S. Constitution and hinders people who have done their time, including parole and probation, from truly reentering society. To remedy this violation, the lawsuit asks the court to order the state to establish a non-arbitrary system for rights restoration with specific and neutral criteria for all Kentuckians with felony convictions.
Fair Elections Center is a national, nonpartisan voting rights and election reform organization which works to remove barriers to registration and voting for traditionally underrepresented constituencies. The Center works to improve election administration through legislative, legal and administrative reform, to protect access to the ballot through litigation, and to provide election law expertise, voter information and technical assistance to voter mobilization organizations. Before the Florida Initiative passed, Fair Elections Center filed a lawsuit that secured a federal court order ruling Florida's arbitrary system of rights restoration unconstitutional under the 1st and 14th Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.
Kentucky Equal Justice Center is a nonprofit law firm and advocacy organization that works to promote equal justice for all residents of the Commonwealth by advocating for low income people and other vulnerable communities.
Fair Elections Center 1825 K St. NW Suite 450 | Washington, District of Columbia 20006 (202) 331-0114 | firstname.lastname@example.org