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Opinion | Pat Freibert: Voting Rights and Justice

By Pat Freibert

Efforts to expunge felony records and allow reinstatement of felons’ voting rights have been trending in the United States for the past several years. The 2016 Kentucky Legislature passed legislation “providing a second chance” for thousands of Kentuckians who have a single, low-level felony charge. Such legislation had been introduced many times in recent years, but failed to pass. This time, the bill had the support of the governor and both the Kentucky Senate and the House of Representatives.

On April 22, Virginia’s Gov. Terry McAuliffe issued an executive order granting voting rights to 206,000 convicted felons, including murderers and rapists. Previous Virginia governors have believed such a drastic change in voting rights could not constitutionally be done without approval of its legislature. Gov. McAuliffe’s order also allows persons convicted of serious crimes to serve on juries. Victims of violent crimes in Virginia can now face people convicted of rape or murder in the jury box. Moreover, McAuliffe’s order extends voting rights to felons convicted of violent crimes who “have not fully paid restitution to their victims for the injuries they caused.”

The speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates responded with outrage, pointing out that the governor, a close friend and political ally of Hillary Clinton, probably aspires to be appointed by her to a cabinet position if she becomes president.

In Virginia, the number of convicted felons is about 4 percent of the number of registered voters – more than enough to potentially change the outcome in many of Virginia’s statewide elections that have recently been very close. After spending nearly $40 million and outspending his opponent nearly 2-to-1, McAuliffe became governor by winning 47.9 percent of the vote compared to his opponent’s 45.5 percent.

Most states deny voting rights to persons convicted of serious crimes, and usually provide a way for individual convicted felons to regain voting rights if certain conditions are met. Since Virginia law does not allow its governor to run for re-election, McAuliffe will be out of a job in less than two years. He knows Hillary Clinton needs to carry Virginia to win the presidency. Based on the belief that convicted felons are more likely to vote for candidates of his party, McAuliffe threatens to issue new executive orders to further expand the number of convicted felons.

In Kentucky, the issue of restoring voting rights to convicted felons has been addressed the correct way, by an act of the legislature following several years of study and debate. And Kentucky’s legislation specifies single, low-level felony charges to become a candidate for restoration of voting rights. Contrast that with what has occurred in Virginia, which resulted in sweeping benefits for convicted felons, all for political advantage and power.

A loss of voting rights is condign punishment for those convicted of serious crimes and must never be taken off the table. At the same time, a second chance is also an important element in the realm of America’s pursuit of justice. This second-chance legislation will require assiduous monitoring to be judged a success. Who will monitor and measure its results? What will be the fiscal costs of monitoring such results?

A second chance is a good thing, an American thing. But justice trumps all other considerations. Kentucky’s approach would seem to have a much better chance of success than Virginia’s approach, which appears to be born of political advantage and power. ■

Pat Freibert is a former Kentucky state representative from Lexington. She can be reached at [email protected].


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