FRANKFORT, Ky. – A bill seeking to amend Kentucky's Constitution to restore voting rights for some felons sailed through the state House on Thursday. Unlike past years, the proposed ballot issue is showing signs of life in the Senate.
Soon after the measure cleared the Democratic-led House on 82-12 vote, a top Senate leader said majority Republicans in that chamber are keeping "an open mind" about the bill.
"This may just be an issue whose time has come, with a few minor changes, if people are willing to compromise," Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer told reporters.
Thayer, R-Georgetown, said he doesn't support the proposal in its current form. But he raised the possibility of amending it to insert a waiting period before some felons would regain voting rights.
"That gives them time to re-immerse themselves in society and prove that they're not going to return to committing more felonies and give them an opportunity to prove they can be good citizens," Thayer said.
In past years, similar measures passed the House but died in the Senate.
This year, the measure's supporters include Republican U.S. Sen. Rand Paul. The potential presidential candidate in 2016 has urged GOP lawmakers in his home state to embrace the proposal.
"The right to vote is a sacred one in our country and it is the very foundation of our republic," Paul said in a statement Thursday that praised House passage of the measure.
"I urge the Kentucky Senate to act on this very important issue."
Paul spokesman Daniel Bayens said earlier this week that the senator expected to speak in favor of the measure at a Senate committee hearing later in the General Assembly session.
Thayer said state Senate leaders are discussing the possibility of a hearing on the issue.
"If we have a hearing on the bill, we'd like to accommodate his schedule," Thayer said.
Thayer said he's looking at offering his own election-related bill, which would require Kentuckians to present valid IDs before gaining access to the polls.
He didn't offer any specifics, saying he's still formulating the legislation.
"There are people who feel strongly about the restoration of felon voting rights," he said. "I feel strongly about the necessity of showing a voter ID in order to vote."
The felons' voting rights measure would be placed on the November ballot in Kentucky if it clears the General Assembly. It would let Kentucky voters decide whether to amend the state Constitution to automatically restore voting rights for some felons who completed their sentences and terms of probation.
Democratic Rep. Jesse Crenshaw of Lexington, who has championed the proposal, said that if ratified by the electorate, the measure would affect an estimated 180,000 people who lost their voting rights due to felony convictions.
His proposal would exclude people convicted of intentional murder, rape, sodomy or sex offenses with a minor from having their voting rights automatically reinstated.
Felons now can have their right to vote restored in Kentucky by petitioning the governor and getting his approval. The bill's supporters say that's an outmoded and arbitrary way of restoring voting rights.