LOUISVILLE, KENTUCKY — Before sunrise on Tuesday, hours before Democratic voters across Kentucky would head to the polls to cast ballots in the presidential primary, Alonzo Malone Jr. sat awake in bed, writing a letter to President Obama.
The 55-year-old Louisville resident said he was inspired at that hour as he finished watching the film Selma, which tells the story of the 1965 marches led by Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders who fought for voting rights for African Americans across the United States.
“It’s 3 a.m. in the morning and while many are still sleeping and preparing to get up to exercise their right to vote, I do not have that right to vote,” Malone, who served three years in prison for two felony convictions, wrote to the president.
“I went on to share in the letter that I had a somewhat colorful past, but my life has changed and today I am the pastor of a church and I would love to exercise my right to vote,” he told ThinkProgress, sitting in a Louisville coffee shop later Tuesday morning. He wore a bow tie, vest, and thick-rimmed glasses, behind which his eyes showed little sign of his sleepless night.
“Seeing the struggle of those folks to vote, I was reminded of my dilemma and not being able to vote,” he said, referring to the film and the movement that led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Malone is one of more than 140,000 Kentuckians who are permanently disenfranchised because of felony convictions. The commonwealth is one of three states with the strictest felon disenfranchisement laws. Just over five percent of Kentucky’s voting-age population cannot vote because of a felony convictions, but for African Americans, that number is 16.7 percent.
I feel less than human. I feel less than a man.
Things were looking up for formerly incarcerated Kentuckians like Malone late last year when former Gov. Steve Beshear (D) 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.
Bevin has said he remains committed to restoring rights for the former felons — he wrote Malone a personal letter promising to work with the legislature and to do all he can. But Malone is still disenfranchised, more than 16 years after he spent time behind bars for missing child support payments and writing a bad check, crimes he committed during a period of drug and alcohol addiction.
“I feel less than human,” he said. “I feel less than a man. I get frustrated.” His eyes turned red and tears began to form as he spoke about not being able to participate in this crucial presidential election. “Sorry for becoming emotional,” he said as he stood up to grab napkins.
“I paid my debt,” he continued a minute later. “I don’t do nothing wrong today. I can pay taxes here in the state of Kentucky, but I can’t vote. Nowhere in the U.S. Constitution… does it say that my right can ever be taken away from me. I’ve read it and I’ve read it, and I’m not illiterate. I feel cheated and robbed.”
The felon disenfranchisement policies that are still in use today were created after the Civil War specifically to keep black citizens from gaining political power. Today, nearly one in four black U.S. voters is blocked from the ballot box because of these policies combined with tough-on-crime laws which send a disproportionate number of black men to prison. Malone said that he believes that Kentucky continues “giving African American males felonies to stop them from voting.”
Watching the civil rights battles that others fought decades before him — including during the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama — has inspired Malone to become an advocate for the restoration of voting rights. As a volunteer with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, he has lobbied before the state legislature and encouraged lawmakers to pass various expungement and rights restoration bills.
Last week, Bevin signed legislation that will make it easier for some former felons to have their records expunged, but it does not apply to people like Malone who have more than one conviction on their records.
Left without other options, Malone is stuck sending application after unanswered application to the governor, asking for a pardon and waiting for a lawmaker to step in and recognize his right to vote. This year, he is particularly upset that he won’t be able to vote for Hillary Clinton, a candidate he said he has supported for decades, in her fight to defeat Donald Trump.
Clinton has come out in support of restoring rights to those who have completed their sentences, while Trump has criticized the governor of Virginia’s recent decision to bring more than 200,000 former felons back into the political process.
“Mr. Trump talks all the time about making America great,” he said. “I will say this: If America is to be great, it ought to allow people who have made a mistake and who are being productive citizens in these United States the right to vote.”