Kentucky's new governor plans to sign an executive order Thursday restoring the vote to more than 100,000 convicted non-violent felons who have completed their sentences.
Andy Beshear, a Democrat and former state attorney general, made the announcement Tuesday in his inaugural address. It's the fulfillment of a promise that shaped the closing days of his campaign last fall, when he won an upset against Republican incumbent Matt Bevin.
"My faith teaches me to treat others with dignity and respect. My faith also teaches forgiveness," Beshear said, and so he will use his executive power to restore "voting rights to over 100,000 men and women who have done wrong in the past but are doing right now. They deserve to participate in our great democracy."
Structural barriers have created a "cost to voting" that disproportionately affects low-income Americans and reduces their participation in the electoral process, according to a report issued Tuesday by a group of academics.
"Those with fewer resources — time, money, information — are 'priced out' of participating due to factors such as election timing, voter identification requirements, felony disenfranchisement, and inefficient election management," the report concludes. "The result is that wealthier people vote at much higher rates than others."
Narrowing the pool of voters, in turn, produces consequences on society, such as increasing inequality, hindering economic growth and weakening public health, according to the report, which draws on existing social science research to summarize the problem. It also offers seven recommendations to lower the "cost of voting" as well as ensure more secure and fair elections.
The constitutionality of one of the nation's strictest curbs on felon voting was debated in a federal appeals court Tuesday.
A coalition of groups on both the left and right, from the ACLU and NAACP to the libertarian Cato Institute, have joined the cause of almost 200,000 Mississippians who have done their time but may never vote again without a governor's pardon or a reprieve from the Legislature. The state says it has almost limitless leeway under the Constitution to set those parameters.
However the case gets decided by the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, a subsequent ruling by the Supreme Court could provide definitive word on the future of expanded voting rights for convicts, which has emerged as one of the top democracy reform causes of the decade.
As many as 80,000 new voters would be created in New Jersey under a bill moving through the state Legislature that would restore the franchise to convicts on probation and parole.
Allowing more people with criminal records to participate in elections has become one of the most hotly debated ideas in the "good government" world. Proponents say expanding felons' voting rights boosts turnout and enhances buy-in to the democratic system, especially in minority communities that produce a disproportionate share of the incarcerated. Opponents say the concept of criminals having to repay their debt to society should not be readily relaxed.
New Jersey has been increasingly blue in recent congressional and presidential elections, and the power structure in Trenton is solidly Democratic, so voting rights expansions are not at all likely to realign the state's partisan balance.