Issue February 10, 2009

WEB EXCLUSIVE: HB 70, Chaco-wearing Lobbyists, & You

FRANKFORT, KY — At first glance, Greg Capillo appears to be anything but a "lobbyist" — that dreaded, loathsome word whose connotations with corruption, waste, and criminal activity have been cemented in our national consciousness by Jack Abramoff, a perpetually spited Congress, and (more recently) the memes of a righteous presidential campaign pledging to end the influence, once and for all, of those Armani-clad, attache-carrying eaters of democracy.

To be fair, the 21-year-old Capillo, clad in muted corduroy and open-toed Chacos, looks decidedly out of place in the staid halls of our state capitol; he’s more Bonnaroo, as opposed to Beltway, attire. But he’s not alone today: As part of a 200-strong contingent of Kentuckians For the Commonwealth (a not-for-profit community organizing/political action group comprised of young and old, black and white, Chaco-clad and not), Capillo & co. are seeking to bring to the forefront of the Kentucky state legislature House Bill 70, which calls for the automatic restoration of voting rights for felons whom have paid their dues to society. Specifically, Capillo is looking for Jody Richards (D-20th), whose vocal support of the bill has earned him a high-five from nearly every young person I’ve talked to.

(An aside: Is it just me, or is it oddly inspiring that 21-year-olds are now high-fiving re: the passage of pet bills?)

Under current law, Kentucky remains one of the last two states in the Union (the other being our sister commonwealth, Virginia) that requires convicted felons to navigate through a labyrinthine bureaucratic process in order to obtain the right of suffrage from their governor. Though the process has gotten easier since former governor Ernie Fletcher’s administration, currently there are 186,000 disenfranchised Kentuckians who, according to KFTC’s lobbying-day coordinator, Dave Newton, "can’t vote because of something stupid they did 20 years ago and have already paid for it." And of those 186,000, roughly 129,000 have already served their sentences but nonetheless remain ineligible to cast a ballot.

Perhaps not surprisingly (in a depressing kind of way), a Voting Rights Coalition pamphlet that was handed to me claimed:

"…Kentucky has the highest African-American disenfranchisement rate in the country with nearly one in every four African-Americans ineligible to vote.  This rate is nearly triple the national African-American disenfranchisement rate."  (emphasis added by the blogger) 

And, assuming an ex-felon does obtain a gubernatorial grant of suffrage, there remains a possibility that the suffrage won’t be ensured from one election (or governor) to the next — which is precisely what HB 70 seeks to overturn by providing a concise and consistent law just like the other 48 states in the nation.

Carl Matthews, a former felon and member of KFTC, breaks it down for me: "Well, in order to get your franchisement, you first have to obtain a form from the Department of Corrections, get that notorized by a parole officer, which then goes to the county prosecutor, and, hopefully, it makes it way up to the governor. It’s a 90-day process. And it’s far from perfect."

Matthews, who regained his suffrage from Gov. Beshear last year, worries that, as the system now stands, his right to vote could be taken away in the future "if someone in the government simply misplaces my voting certificate that has the governor’s signature on it. If that happens, I can’t vote." He shakes his head. "It’s a black hole."

Originally written by Lexington Rep. Jesse Crenshaw, HB 70 managed to get passed by the House of Representatives last year, but was effectively killed in the Senate due to the session’s time constraints. Now, with a new president in the White House and the groundswell from his net-centric campaign holding together well after the election, HB 70’s future — and perhaps that of the word "lobbyist" itself — seems as bright as ever.

To follow the bill’s progress, as well as to engage in community organizing in your own backyard, visit theKentuckians For The Commonwealth’s blog.