FRANKFORT, Ky. -- Professing his belief in redemption, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear signed an executive order Thursday to restore voting rights for more than 140,000 nonviolent offenders who have completed their sentences.
The new Democratic governor was surrounded by voting-rights supporters in the state Capitol Rotunda as he signed the order on his third day in office, fulfilling a campaign pledge.
The state's former attorney general noted his previous work to prosecute wrongdoers, but added: “I also believe in redemption, in second chances. ... My faith teaches me forgiveness."
“I believe we have a moral responsibility to protect and extend the right to vote, and to say to so many who have paid their debt that we welcome them as full members of society again," he said.
Kentucky has one of the country's highest voter disenfranchisement rates, with nearly one in 10 Kentuckians and nearly one in four African-Americans currently not allowed to vote, Beshear said. His order seeks to substantially reduce that disenfranchisement rate.
Among those celebrating was Rynn Young, who has never voted due to his drug conviction as an 18 year old in the late 1990s. The Louisville man now works as a sales representative and has twin 21-month-old daughters.
Young said in the 21 years since his conviction, he has been judged by mistakes he made as a teenager. “Today, a day that I thought I'd never see . ... Gov. Beshear gave me back my equality as an American.”
“I just appreciate the opportunity for a second chance, just to be heard," he said.
Amanda Bourland also lost her right to vote due to drug and other offenses as an 18 year old. Now in her mid-40s, the Louisville woman has four sons, works and is pursuing a master's degree. She said she has anguished over her inability to vote.
“I have tried and tried to be heard at the polls and I have been told ‘no,'" she said. “I was told 13 years ago that if I kept doing the next right thing, the next right thing would happen."
She then told Beshear: ”Thank you so much for making the next right thing happen, because now my voice matters."
The Rev. L. Clark Williams, chairman of The People's Campaign Community Network, described Beshear's action as a “crucial day for democracy in our commonwealth." His group will work on the follow-up phase — getting the affected people registered to vote.
The order applies to nonviolent felons who completed their sentences, including probation or parole, Beshear said. It also grants voting rights to those who have served their sentences but still owe fees or fines — a factor that some states have used to deny voting rights. The action does not relieve them of obligations to pay court-ordered restitution or fines.
“You can still owe money and you have your voting rights restored today," Beshear told reporters. “There are other ways to make sure that that money is paid. We don't want to hold back voting rights just because someone doesn't have the same bank account as somebody else."
“Our job is to make that seamless," he said. “To make sure that anyone can walk into any of the election officials' offices and be able to register right then, right there. Now that's going to take a little bit of time, and we ask people to bear with us."
The process will be completed long before the next election, he said.
Crimes excluded from the executive order include treason, election bribery and violence offenses — including all rapes and sexual abuse, homicide, fetal homicide and first- and second-degree assault, according to Beshear's office.
Beshear said he supports making his executive order permanent by adding its provisions to the state Constitution. Such a measure would have to win approval from lawmakers and Kentucky voters.