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Some Kentucky ex-felons granted voting rights

FRANKFORT, Ky. -- About 15 years ago, Mantell Stevens spent 30 days in jail for drug possession. He has not been able to vote since then.

The 36-year-old Lexington resident pleaded guilty to a felony, which means he lost his right to vote under the state constitution. And because Kentucky was one of four states that did not automatically restore people's voting rights once their sentences were completed, Stevens never got it back.

On Tuesday, an executive order from Democratic Gov. Steve Beshear changed that. His order will automatically restore the voting rights of people convicted of certain felonies as long as they meet specific criteria.

"Being able to participate in democracy and being able to vote for elected officials is so important," said Stevens, one of an estimated 180,000 Kentuckians who are out of prison but cannot vote because of their felony convictions. "I think I'm able to possibly elect some officials that might help better my community."

Beshear's order does not apply to anyone convicted of bribery, treason, violent crimes, or sex crimes. It does not apply to people who have other pending charges or arrests. And it does not apply to those who have been released from prison but have not paid their court-ordered restitution.

The Department of Corrections will review people once they are released from prison and automatically restore their voting rights if they meet the criteria. For people who are already out of prison, they must get a form from their parole officers or download it from the Department of Corrections' website to begin the review.

Of those who are already out of prison, it's not clear how many will qualify. But Beshear, who leaves office next month, said it's safe to put the number at more than 100,000 people.

"This disenfranchisement makes no sense ... because it dilutes the energy of democracy, which functions only if all classes and categories of people have a voice, not just the privileged, powerful few," Beshear said.

Kentucky's constitution requires convicted felons to lose their rights to vote, hold public office, own a gun or serve on a jury. Beshear's order will restore the rights to vote and hold public office. Beshear said his lawyers told him the only way for a felon to be able to own a gun would be to receive a full pardon from the governor.

Before 2008, felons had to apply to the governor's office to restore their voting rights. The application included paying a fee, writing an essay and providing three character references. Beshear eliminated those requirements when he took office, but felons still had to apply to his office and be considered on a case-by-case basis.

The state legislature has tried and failed to pass a constitutional amendment, which would have required a public vote, to automatically restore voting rights. But Beshear has issued several executive orders do things the state legislature has not done. He used an executive order to create a state health exchange and expand Kentucky's Medicaid program under the federal Affordable Care Act. In June, Beshear raised the minimum wage to $10.10 an hour for some executive branch state employees.

Beshear will be replaced by Republican Gov.-elect Matt Bevin, who could repeal Beshear's order. Spokeswoman Jessica Ditto said Bevin supports restoring voting rights to nonviolent offenders but she added that he was not notified of Beshear's order until a few minutes before he announced it.

"The executive order will be evaluated during the transition period," she said.

Republican State Rep. Jeff Hoover, the minority floor leader of the state House of Representatives, said he supports restoring voting rights to convicted felons but opposes Beshear's method.

"It should be the role of the legislature, not one person, which should address these issues through legislative debate," Hoover said in a news release.

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