In terms of our republic’s future, the most pivotal political race right now isn’t presidential. It’s the Bluegrass State’s gubernatorial race. Depending on who wins, Kentucky has the potential to make federal government work again.
While our current one has upended public understanding of checks and balances, no president controls government by him/herself. The “sole control” job in Washington belongs to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell from Kentucky. At least that’s how he’s playing it. If McConnell’s back in 2021, especially if there’s a Democratic president, even less will get done. So far this year, he’s prevented votes on at least 100 bills that were passed by the Democratic-led House of Representatives.
That’s not the only Kentucky ballot blockade. On Nov. 24, 2015, right before he left office, former Gov. Steve Beshear re-enfranchised all people with criminal records in the state.
But Beshear’s successor, current Gov. Matt Bevin, promptly disenfranchised those same people again, 28 days later. Kentuckians with criminal records had less than a month as eligible voters.
Now Andy Beshear, the son of the former governor, is challenging incumbent Bevin. As of August, Andy was up by about nine points in the polls and, if he bests Bevin in November, he’s promised to re-enfranchise those same people whose rights were restored by his father - within the first week of his term. That’s 312,000 new voters for next year’s presidential election … and McConnell’s 2020 campaign for his would-be seventh term.
McConnell owes his Senate seat to felony disenfranchisement. In 1984, he won by about 5,300 votes but would likely have lost had people with records been allowed at the polls, according to an analysis published in American Sociological Review in 2002. Predictably, he’s opposed these voters’ rights since then.
He’s underwater in terms of popularity in the state. Polls this year have shown only about one-third of Kentucky voters approve of his performance. And his challenger, retired Marine and mom Amy McGrath, lost by three points in a House race last year in a district that is far more liberal than the rest of the state. Without more voters, McConnell can win again even though he’s as disliked as, well, Mitch McConnell.
But McConnell might not win if people with criminal records are allowed to vote. In fact, I’d venture that Kentucky felons might be the key to breaking our legislative logjam in the U.S. Senate.
No one should assume that restored voters will automatically vote for the Democratic candidate. There are plenty of formerly incarcerated people who will register as - and vote - Republican. For example, when Vox analyzed ex-felons’ voting records in Florida in 2016, it found no strong partisan lean. It also found that only a small portion of the re-enfranchised even registered to vote at all.
What they won’t abide, though - and what might bring them to the polls - is a candidate who blocks things from getting done. The life of a person with a criminal record is one of permanent impediment. It’s not just the denial of voting rights. Society forecloses employment opportunities, friendships, even the ability to spend money. Naturally we’re suspicious of gatekeepers because we’re kept away from too many gates.
And no one keeps a gate better than Mitch. That means there’s no politician a formerly incarcerated voter would like to oust more than him.
McConnell won by about 222,000 votes in 2014. The 312,000 people whose rights may be restored if Andy Beshear becomes governor in Kentucky can change the course of our country’s history by ousting the human hindrance called Mitch McConnell.
Chandra Bozelko writes the award-winning blog Prison Diaries. You can follow her on Twitter at @ChandraBozelko and email her at email@example.com.