Less than a month after newly sworn-in Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear signed an executive order restoring the right to vote to roughly 140,000 people with felony convictions who have completed their sentences, state Republicans introduced a bill that would make it harder for those people to vote.
The bill, which was a top legislative priority for state Senate Republicans, would mandate that Kentucky voters show photo identification to vote in-person or absentee. Kentucky already has a voter ID law, but this bill would narrow the types of ID that can be used to cast a ballot.
Republican lawmakers argue that the law should be enacted before the 2020 election to guard against voter fraud, which is virtually non-existent. They also say that it’s not hard to get an ID and that the state will provide funding to help people pay.
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But research shows that voter ID laws reduce turnout among low-income and nonwhite voters—the same population that disproportionately fills Kentucky’s prisons.
“It’s just going to continue to suppress the vote,” said Tayna Fogle, an organizer with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. “It’s just another barrier for the person who has completed their sentence.”
Before Beshear issued his December executive order, roughly 25 percent of Kentucky’s African American population was disenfranchised because of a felony conviction, a rate higher than any other state. That’s one of the reasons the executive order was heralded by advocates like Fogle as a huge step forward for voting rights. Now, she said, “it feels like somebody just took a pin to pop the balloon.”
“The vote is so powerful,” Fogle said. “It continues to be a tool for those who are sitting in the majority to keep their foot on our neck.”
There are many reasons people with criminal records may not be able to meet a strict photo ID requirement, including the fact that Kentucky does not have any system in place to help those leaving state prisons obtain a valid form of state ID.
“When we go into prison, most of us go in and we lose everything,” said Fogle, who spent several years behind bars before becoming an organizer. She noted that many people’s driver’s licenses expire while they’re incarcerated, leaving them scrambling to find necessary paperwork to get one after their release.
People returning from prison are also more likely to be low-income or housing unstable and may lack the time or transportation necessary to get to the Department of Motor Vehicles or government agency to obtain a valid ID to vote.
“Those who are returning citizens already are trying to put their lives back together, and then you add the additional burden that to be a participating member of democracy, you also have to jump through these hoops,” said Josh Douglas, a University of Kentucky law professor who researches elections and voting. “What we know is that any time you add hurdles and make it harder to vote, fewer people vote.”
Charles Hightower, who was released from Kentucky prison in mid-December, told The Appeal that it took him multiple trips to the DMV, many hours on the bus each direction, and multiple weeks to get his driver’s license.
“It was just time-consuming,” he said. “There were the holidays, so that was closed and that was a wait. Then I went to two places first and they sent me to a third place before I finally found the right place to get the ID.”
Once Hightower found the correct location, he said he was told his paperwork wasn’t sufficient and he would have to obtain an additional proof of residency. He said he was persistent and he had help from community advocates.
William Rone, a 60-year-old Lexington, Kentucky, resident who is prohibited from voting because of drug-related felonies, said he understands that it’s a discouraging process.
“When you get released, it’s hard enough that you have to get a new driver’s license,” he said. “First you have to get your birth certificate, and hopefully it’s in the state you’re in. From that, you have to get your Social Security card and from that, you can get a driver’s license. … Everybody thinks that’s no problem, but you can’t drive and you’re relying on public transportation. It’s a lot harder than people think.”
Debbie Graner, who battled an alcohol addiction for many years and lost her right to vote, now works on voting rights campaigns with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. She said she has heard from a number of people returning from prison who don’t have the required form of photo ID.
“A lot of folks don’t have computer situations, they don’t have cell phones, they don’t have access to the information,” Graner said. “To require them to have another type of voting ID is going to mean a lot of people aren’t going to try to go forth and get it.”
As an organizer with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, Fogle assists people returning from prison in finding housing, jobs, and securing other resources like a valid ID. She said she often accompanies people to the DMV, where officials require multiple documents including a birth certificate, Social Security card, and proof of residency. She said the agency often does not accept release paperwork from the Department of Corrections as proof of residency, despite the fact that it has an individual’s name, address, photo, birthdate, and a date of expiration 30 days after a person’s release.
“It has everything that is a qualifier to get an ID, and the DMV will still not honor it,” she said. “It depends who is sitting at the table when you go in.”
A representative for the Kentucky DMV did not respond to a request for comment on whether its employees should be accepting DOC release paperwork as a form of ID. The Department of Corrections also did not respond to a request for comment.
Fogle said she would like to see the DOC help prisoners secure their birth certificates, Social Security cards, or other documents necessary for obtaining ID six months before their release. But the state does nothing to help with that transition.
Some states have made efforts to help people leaving prison get ID. As of 2016, Florida, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, and Wyoming all had systems to provide state-issued ID cards to people as they return from prison facilities. Similarly, Arizona, California, Illinois, Montana, Ohio, Utah, and Wisconsin, allow people leaving prison to exchange their corrections department-issued IDs for state IDs or for documents to allow them to obtain state IDs.
In 2016, then-U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch called on more state officials to help people released from federal prison obtain valid state ID. In a letter to all governors and Washington, D.C.’s mayor, Lynch asked them to allow returning citizens to use the Bureau of Prisons ID cards they’re given behind bars and release documents to obtain state ID.
“Access to government-issued identification documents is critical to successful reentry,” she wrote, “Without government-issued identification, men and women leaving correctional facilities face extreme challenges securing employment and housing, registering for school, opening bank accounts, and accessing other benefits, such as health care, that are critical to successful reintegration.”
Though she didn’t mention voting specifically, 35 states currently require ID to vote and seven of those states have a strict photo ID requirement.
Possible Consequences for Turnout
Fogle and other advocates worry that if passed, the new photo ID requirement would affect turnout in Kentucky’s high-profile Senate election this year. A number of prominent Democrats are challenging Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, and a Republican loss would have major national implications for the party.
One of the Democrats running, Charles Booker, is a progressive African American who serves in the Kentucky House. Booker is a supporter of expanded voting rights and introduced a bill last week to make Beshear’s executive order permanent.
He said he worries that a photo ID bill could depress turnout.
“I am deeply concerned about the implications and impact of this potential legislation on the ability of Kentuckians to have their voices heard at the ballot box,” he told The Appeal in a statement. “This voter ID legislation will create an unnecessary burden on Kentuckians at a time when they need their voices heard the most. Further it will disproportionately hurt the most vulnerable among us.”
That potential impact on Kentucky’s Black population is also on Fogle’s mind as state Republicans champion this bill.
“They would love to suppress the votes,” she said. “If we can register and get folks to the polls like they came out when President Obama ran … that’s why it’s so important.”
The Appeal is a non-profit media organization that produces original journalism about criminal justice that is focused on the most significant drivers of mass incarceration, which occur at the state and local level.