FRANKFORT, Kentucky — A proposed constitutional amendment aimed at restoring the voting rights of some felons cleared the Kentucky Senate on Wednesday after being rewritten to include a five-year waiting period.
The measure returns to the House. It passed a much different version last month that proposed automatically reinstating voting rights for eligible felons after completing all conditions of their sentences.
The proposal, which cleared the Senate on a 34-4 vote, would go on Kentucky's fall ballot if it clears the Legislature.
Some senators said they voted for the stricter Senate version in hopes of advancing it toward a better product crafted by House-Senate negotiators. They said the waiting period amounts to another punishment for people who paid their debt to society and should be eligible to vote.
"Why do we want to punish them again, put another five years on them?" said Democratic Sen. Jerry Rhoads of Madisonville.
Senate President Robert Stivers defended the waiting period, saying he couldn't support automatic restoration of voting rights for people convicted of such crimes as assault and drug trafficking.
"I can't go there," the Manchester Republican said.
Senate Majority Leader Damon Thayer said the five-year waiting period gives felons a chance to prove they won't commit more crimes.
Some wouldn't have to wait that long.
Those who have completed their sentences and have been crime-free for at least five years would have their voting rights restored once the ballot measure was ratified by voters, Thayer said.
"That means thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of ex-felons will have their voting rights restored," the Georgetown Republican said.
The Senate vote came a few hours after the measure emerged from committee, which rewrote it. It was a startling development for a proposal that has languished. The proposal has passed the Democratic-run House many times in past years, only to stall in the GOP-led Senate.
The Senate's changes were criticized by Rep. Jesse Crenshaw, who has led the push for years to restore voting rights for some felons.
Crenshaw, D-Lexington, said the Senate version would result in "justice for some and not justice for all." He estimated that about 180,000 people in Kentucky have lost their voting rights due to felony convictions.
Sen. Reginald Thomas, D-Lexington, called the waiting period "punitive and oppressive" during the committee hearing.
Raoul Cunningham, president of the Louisville NAACP chapter, said the wait amounts to "extending the sentence."
Thayer flatly said that without the changes, the bill would have died again in the Senate.
U.S. Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., made a pitch for the bill earlier Wednesday to the Senate State and Local Government Committee.
"Most of us believe in redemption," Paul said. "Most of us believe in a second chance."
Paul, who is considering a run for the presidency in 2016, said the voting restoration debate raises a larger issue about national drug policy.
"Something's gone wrong with the 'war on drugs,'" Paul said, noting that minorities account for disproportionately high numbers of prisoners. "There is a racial outcome."
Paul said the country "went a little crazy" in setting punishments for some drug crimes, such as a 25-year imprisonment for selling painkillers to a police informant.
Paul said afterward that the Senate's revisions still represented progress on an issue that has been stymied for years.
The House-passed version of the ballot measure, if approved by the electorate, would automatically restore voting rights for some felons who completed their sentences and terms of probation.
It would exclude people convicted of intentional murder, rape, sodomy or sex offenses with a minor from having their voting rights automatically reinstated.
Crenshaw said the Senate's substitute was broadened to cover any felony sex offenders from having their voting rights automatically restored. Also, the revised version would exclude anyone with multiple prior offenses, he said. Those provisions would disqualify more than half of the 180,000 people affected, he said.
Also, anyone committing a misdemeanor or felony during the five-year waiting period would be disqualified from having their voting rights automatically restored, Crenshaw said.
Felons now can have their right to vote restored in Kentucky by petitioning the governor and getting his approval. That option would remain.
The legislation is House Bill 70.