SHEPHERDSVILLE, KENTUCKY — After 46-year-old Michael Hiser adhered an “I Voted” sticker onto his suit lapel for the first time ever, he sat down to take it all in.
“I’ve been trying for so long,” he said, his voice cracking while thinking about his more than decade-long journey to restore his voting rights. “It’s really nice to be able to have a voice after so long being silent.” He wiped tears from under his eyes as he spoke to ThinkProgress from a bench outside a suburban Louisville polling place.
“When I got out of prison, they told me to do good, but they told me I couldn’t be a part of their group,” he continued. “It made it me feel like I didn’t belong.”
— Kira Lerner (@kira_lerner) May 17, 2016
What is typically a normal event for most Americans turned into a momentous occasion for Hiser on Tuesday. After work — his second day on a new job — he drove to his local elementary school, where he parked, walked into the gymnasium, and checked in with a poll worker. Then he headed to a voting booth where he selected a Senate and U.S. House of Representatives candidate — as a registered Republican, he wasn’t voting for a presidential candidate this week.
But thinking about the long journey that got him to that gym was what made Hiser emotional. The journey began when he was 16-years-old and was tried as an adult for a drug-related crime — one that earned him his first of 53 felony convictions.
He completed parole for his most recent drug conviction in 2012, after spending four years incarcerated and many more homeless and addicted to drugs and alcohol. But during his most recent stint in prison, he said he discovered religion and “got saved.” He has now been sober for 12 years and has started various companies, including a treatment program for children of addiction.
It was during his last prison sentence that he learned that former felons in Kentucky are permanently barred from voting. Kentucky is one of three states with the strictest felon disenfranchisement laws in the country.
It’s really nice to be able to have a voice after so long being silent.
“When I finally got my life together, to be turned down by the state and told that you’re still not one of us, you’re still not a citizen — although you still have to pay taxes — we won’t allow you to have a voice. It was so upsetting,” he said.
Once back in society, Hiser began his battle to regain his rights. The fight has taken him to the state senate, where he testified on behalf of legislation to allow former felons to expunge their records. He has also met with various state politicians and has lobbied them to push for restoration legislation.
Hiser was lucky. Last December, before former Gov. Steve Beshear (D) left office, he issued pardons to 201 people as his final act in office, and Hiser made his list. Hiser was grateful to be included, but said that “there’s other people who deserved it more.”
For the more than 140,000 Kentuckians permanently disenfrancised because of felony convictions, the only option for them remains getting a pardon from the governor. Late last year, Beshear set up an application process for people with felony convictions to regain their rights, but few had the opportunity to take advantage of the change. In December, shortly after taking office, current Gov. Matt Bevin (R) issued an executive order undoing the work of his Democratic predecessor, claiming that Beshear had acted beyond his authority.
Hiser said the reversal was disappointing. He faulted Bevin for turning the issue into a partisan one. “If they were both Republicans, he’d have left it,” Hiser said. “Or if they were both Democrats, he’d have left it. But instead it became party politics instead of about the people and the message of Kentucky moving into the 21st century and becoming one of the states that allow freedom and liberty for all of its citizens.”
This Man Can’t Vote Today Because Kentucky’s GOP Governor Reversed A Major Voting Rights VictoryPolitics by CREDIT: Kira Lerner LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY – Before sunrise on Tuesday, hours before Democratic voters across…thinkprogress.orgIn fact, Hiser is not one to blame the issue on Republicans. As an self-described independent but a registered Republican, he said that people are frequently surprised to learn about his political views.
“I probably have different views than most people think I have since I came out of prison,” he said. “Most people think automatically I’m a Democrat…. It used to be funny that we were in meetings with people like Rand Paul and [state Sen.] Damon Thayer (R) and the Democrats would say, well the only reason they don’t want to give us our rights back is because they’ll vote Democrat. And I would be sitting there and I’d be like, I don’t believe thats always true.”
Though Tuesday was his first time officially casting a ballot, he did attend Kentucky’s GOP caucus in early March. On that day, he brought his 8-year-old grandson with him to the polls to witness the special occasion.
“All he talks about is voting,” Hiser said. “He’s like excited about voting, because his whole life I’ve been fighting this battle.”