By Steve Bittenbender
FRANKFORT, Ky. (Reuters) - Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear on Tuesday signed an executive order restoring voting rights to most felons in state in an action that he said will affect some 180,000 people.
Once felons have completed their sentences, including any probation or parole, and have made court-mandated restitution, they will have their rights automatically restored as long as they have no additional cases pending, Beshear said.
Previously, felony offenders needed to apply to the governor’s office to have their voting rights restored. Now, Beshear said, the Department of Corrections will make the determination.
“The old system is unfair,” Beshear said. “It’s counterproductive. We need to be smarter in our criminal justice system. Research shows that ex-felons who vote are less likely to commit new crime and return to prison. That’s because if you vote, you tend to be more engaged in society.”
The outgoing Democratic governor, speaking to reporters in the state capital, said the order does not cover those convicted of violent, sex-related, bribery or treason crimes.
Kentucky is one of four states that requires its governor to sign off on the restoration of a felon's voting rights.
The issue has long been debated in Kentucky as the state House of Representatives, controlled by the Democrats, has passed a restoration bill 10 times in the last nine years only for it to die in the Republican-controlled Senate. However, the issue does have broad support as U.S. Sen. Rand Paul urged the passage of a bill that would have restored the right to non-violent felons.
However, even Republican officials who support restoring rights criticized the governor’s approach.
“My issue with today’s action is not about the restoration of those rights, but the fact once again this governor has chosen to usurp the authority of the Kentucky General Assembly through executive order,” state House minority leader Jeff Hoover said in a statement.
Hoover questioned the legality of the governor’s action, saying that an amendment to the state constitution was required.
Beshear responded by saying the state constitution gives him the right to restore voting rights.
Beshear has served two terms as governor and was prohibited from running for a third straight time. Earlier this month, Republican Matt Bevin won election and will be inaugurated next month.
A call to Bevin's office has not yet been returned.
(Reporting by Steve Bittenbender in Frankfort, Ky., Writing by Ben Klayman in Detroit; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Steve Orlofsky)