In Kentucky the Path to Restoring Voting Rights to Felons Makes a Detour
FRANKFORT — As a child, Teddi Smith-Robillard suffered trauma that haunted and shaped her early years—to the point that she ended up a convicted felon, she said.
“I lived in hell, in my mind," she said.
Now 74, she can reflect on a life of overcoming many obstacles—including regaining the right to vote in Kentucky, which she needed extraordinary measures to achieve.
In Kentucky, one in five adult African-Americans has lost the right to vote because of a felony conviction. The nonprofit Sentencing Project estimates that 180,000 felons can't vote in the state; currently, the the felons' only way to regain voting rights is to seek pardons from the governor.
A bill filed by state Rep. Jesse Crenshaw that would automatically restore those rights has passed both chambers of the Kentucky General Assembly and would place the measure on the November ballot to amend the state constitution for voter approval.
But the very compromise that allowed for the felon voting rights legislation to pass in the state Senate could also keep thousands of felons trapped in a virtual prison of taxation without representation.
Rand Paul's Support
It’s not often you see a high-profile member of the U. St. Senate testifying to a state government committee, but Sen. Rand Paul, the junior Kentucky senator, is on a mission.
Paul’s star-powered testimony before the state Senate’s state and local government committee was in support of a bill that would automatically restore the rights of non-violent felons who have done their time.
“When you look at the prison population, three out of four people in prison are black or brown," Paul told legislators. "Something’s gone wrong with the War on Drugs. There is a racial outcome.”
For someone who wasn’t a fan of the Civil Rights Act just a few years ago, it’s clearly a different tune for Paul; part of a quasi-presidential charm offensive that is itself an outgrowth of a broader reorganization within the Republican Party's messaging, which in recent history hasn't been effective in attracting voters.
But after an hour of debate in Senate committee, it became clear that the bill Paul and other supportive state Republican leaders had come to champion was to be disemboweled in the spirit of compromise by one of their own.
State Sen. Damon Thayer, a Republican from Georgetown—admittedly not a fan of felon voter restoration—sponsored substitute legislation that transformed Crenshaw’s bill. His changes added a bevy of restrictions. such as a mandatory five-year waiting period, that angered advocates and former felons.
To their chagrin, Thayer maintained that they should be thankful for even considering the issue.
“This is your best chance to keep this bill moving forward. And I think there ought to be some level of gratitude that we are here today having this conversation," Thayer said, to some derisive laugher, in the committee hearing.
'Don’t Give Up the Good For … Perfect'
Under Thayer’s changes, fewer than half of the estimated 180,000 non-violent felons in Kentucky eligible to regain their suffrage would see those rights automatically restored.
The rest would have to seek executive pardon under current law. That’s in large part because felons with multiple offenses won’t be eligible under Thayer’s language. And new stipulations against sex offenders of any kind would add thousands more to that figure, as well.
“Yesterday as I pledging, saying the pledge of allegiance, as I got to the end of it, there is the phrase that each of us know as, ‘and justice for all, and it made me think about the committee substitute, because the committee substitute says, in essence, ‘and justice for some,' said state Rep. Jesse Crenshaw, a Lexington Democrat and the bill's original sponsor.
Crenshaw said he believes it can still be returned to something he's more amiable to.
But Senate's changes to House Bill 70—legislation that has come to define Crenshaw’s 20-plus years of service—may be the ultimate shape of his legacy.
“House Bill 70 is not a statute; it’s to amend the Kentucky constitution," Crenshaw said. "So for people who support 70, to go out and try to persuade voters to vote in favor of something that they don’t believe in, is a difficult task.”
Raoul Cunningham, president of the Louisville chapter of the NAACP, told lawmakers that the five-year waiting period amounts to a form of taxation without representation
“Now we possibly could accept that five-year waiting … period, if you were going to say that felon would not even pay taxes during that five-year period," Cunningham said.
The changes were adopted by a unanimous vote and, as if expedited by Paul’s presence, the amended bill went straight to the floor of the Senate.
There, Thayer defended the five-year waiting period, saying that the highest incidences of recidivism happen in the first three years after a felon is released.
“I know that some members do not like this approach, but I’ve learned in 11 years in this body, don’t give up the good for the sake of the perfect," Thayer said.
Senate Minority Whip Jerry Rhoads questioned what a felon’s offenses have to do with their right to vote.
“We’re punishing them again by imposing upon them a five-year waiting period where they can’t even commit a misdemeanor, and somehow or another that disqualifies them from voting or from the ability to rationally decide who they want to vote for simply because they’ve been convicted of a felony and they’ve paid their debt to society," Rhoads said.
But as the debate waned, new rationales for the waiting period emerged. Senate President Robert Stivers compared felons to unruly children who need to be supervised.
“As I have raised children, sometimes when they get outside of my control, they tend not to abide by the rule or the norms that we have set in society or the household," Stivers said.
Ultimately, the amended bill passed by a 34 to 4 vote.
'I Would Never Be Free'
Teddi Smith-Robillard is a 74-year-old African-American woman who has called Lexington home for most of her life. She’s also an ex-offender.
“The crap that they’re supposing, I would never be free, because multiple felonies would preclude you from ever being free," Smith Robillard said.
Smith-Robillard's life changed violently when she moved to Kentucky from West Virginia with her father, a minister, as a child.
“I got raped when I first came to Kentucky at 11. Didn’t even know where babies come from, so I was messed up in my mind for years," she said.
In an era of racial segregation, bringing charges against her attackers was never considered, Smith-Robillard said.
As she entered adolescence, she began acting out: drinking, smoking, getting in trouble with the law. Eventually she was caught writing bad checks, and pleaded guilty to jumping bail after missing a court date.
"At 11 years old, you know, you couldn’t talk about it… I didn’t wake up one morning and say, ‘I’m gonna break the law today.’… Once I got my substance abuse and mental health issues under control, I don’t get in trouble," she said.
She later earned three associate degrees alongside her daughter, interned with a California congressman, registered thousands of people to vote. And, just a couple of years ago, she received a pardon from Gov. Steve Beshear allowing her to cast a ballot.
HB 70 now heads to the House for approval, where Speaker Greg Stumbo stand’s behind Crenshaw’s original legislation.
“I would anticipate that the House would stand firmly behind Rep. Crenshaw and whatever he decides to do on that bill," Stumbo said.
Until then, Smith-Robillard will keep waiting for other Kentuckians convicted of felonies to regain their voting rights.
“At my age, all these add-ons and things they’re piling on, at 74, if I have to wait another five years it’s a death sentence to me," she said. "What they’re proposing is a death sentence. I might as well lie down and die, and they probably would appreciate that.”
(Image via Shutterstock)