Less than a month after taking office, Kentucky’s newly elected Republican Gov. Matt Bevin reversed a move by his Democratic predecessor that had restored the voting rights of about 140,000 former felons.
Those impacted, who are overwhelmingly African American and lower income, had already completed their felony sentences but remained permanently disenfranchised. The order excluded those convicted of violent crimes, sex crimes, bribery or treason.
Bevin’s move Tuesday night goes against promises he made during the campaign to keep the restoration of voting rights in place. He even told reporters in November that he would stand up to his own party on the issue and convince them it was the right thing to do. Now, thanks to his order, tens of thousands of Kentuckians will not only lose the opportunity to regain their voting rights, they will also be permanently unable to serve on a jury, run for office, or obtain a vocational license.
The only explanation Bevin offered for the reversal is that he believes “it is an issue that must be addressed through the legislature and by the will of the people.”
Kentucky is one of a tiny handful of states where former felons have to individually petition the governor to restore their civil rights after they have fully completed their sentences — a process that can be arbitrary and humiliating. As a result, one in five African Americans in the state are disenfranchised. Studies have found that ex-felons who have their voting rights restored feel more invested in their communities and are less likely to end up back in the criminal justice system.
In another executive order this week, Bevin reversed former Gov. Beshear’s move to raise the state’s minimum wage for government workers and contractors to $10.10 an hour, bringing it back down to $7.25 an hour. About 800 state workers who have already gotten raises will be able to keep them, but new hires will now have to start at the lower pay rate. In the order, Bevin hinted that he would prefer the state have no minimum wage at all: “Wage rates ideally would be established by the demands of the labor market instead of being set by the government,” he said.
Bevin also used his new executive power to grant the wish of Kentucky clerk Kim Davis to remove all clerk names from marriage licenses to accommodate religious objections to same-sex marriage. Though all gay and straight couples retain the right to marry, thanks to the Supreme Court, LGBT rights groups in the state lament the governor’s move. “It’s a clear signal to Kim Davis and her camp that if you object to doing portions of your job — even if you’re an elected official — the executive branch will give you an out,” said Chris Hartman with the Fairness Campaign.
Others claim the governor is overstepping his legal bounds and inviting lawsuits by making unilaterally changes to the state marriage license form.
Bevin, who has previously said he believes legalizing same-sex marriage could lead to parents marrying their children, was swept into office in November in an election marked by dismally low voter turnout. Less than a third of the state’s eligible voters cast a ballot. Had the state’s former non-violent felons been able to vote, they could have easily swayed the election.