Tuesday, September 7, 2004

Felons face new vote rules

Fletcher adds limits; civil libertarians upset

The Associated Press

FRANKFORT - Gov. Ernie Fletcher is taking a different approach than past Kentucky governors to restoring voting rights to felons.

Fletcher has added steps to the process by requiring felons who want to vote again to provide three character references and explain in writing why they should be allowed to go to the polls. Local prosecutors also have added sway under Fletcher's new system.

The new policy has upset civil libertarians, voting rights advocates and some Democrats. They argue that it adds unnecessary steps that could discourage some felons from seeking to have their rights restored.

John Roach, Fletcher's top lawyer, said applications received little or no scrutiny under the old system, and some felons were allowed to vote again even though they owed restitution to victims.

"It had certainly become an easy, pro forma exercise. But we felt it was appropriate for someone who is a felon - that the law said their civil rights were taken away - it wasn't too much to ask them to simply state in their own words why they wanted them to be restored and why they deserved it and to provide those references," Roach said.

Sandy Canon, executive director of the National Conference for Community and Justice in Lexington, said the process works against some minorities and the poor.

"These applicants are disproportionately persons of color and from low economic strata. For many of them, writing a letter is a barrier," Canon said.

More than 600 applications from felons are awaiting Fletcher's decision, with about a month left before the Oct. 4 deadline to register to vote in the November election.

Records of the Kentucky secretary of state's office show that Fletcher signed his first two orders July 26. Five more were signed in early August, and 94 were filed the last day of August.

Fletcher's predecessor, former Gov. Paul Patton, began issuing orders one month after taking office in 1995 and issued 637 through August of his first year.

Under the new policy the commonwealth's attorneys from where the felony was committed and in the applicant's home county are given two opportunities, instead of one, to object.

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