When Frankfort resident Debra Graner moved to Kentucky from Pennsylvania in 2009, she had a difficult time making friends and finding work. She soon fell into a deep depression and gave into her alcoholism on Halloween 2010.
“I bought myself a big bottle of vodka, came home and was going to watch Oprah,” Graner said. “In a blind drunken blackout, I set fire to our rental home. I was convicted of arson.”
After being convicted of a felony, Graner joined the approximately 312,000 other disenfranchised Kentuckians convicted of a felony who lost their right to vote under the Kentucky Constitution.
Graner was one of 15 felons who spoke during a rally held Wednesday in the Capitol Rotunda and organized by the Kentucky Voting Rights Coalition, supporting Senate Bill 238, a bill proposing an amendment to Section 145 of the Kentucky Constitution. The amendment would allow any felons convicted of non-violent crimes and who have completed their sentences to automatically have their voting rights restored.
Currently, those convicted of felonies can petition to have their rights restored, but only Gov. Matt Bevin has the power to do that, said Dave Newton with Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. Other states in the United States restore voting rights after felons serve their sentences — only Iowa and Kentucky strip those rights for good, he said.
“We’re coming up on being a 40-year-old organization of 12,000 folks from all over Kentucky,” Newton said about Kentuckians for the Commonwealth. “We work on a whole range of issues, from building a democracy, environmental justice and economic issues.”
Many of the men and women who spoke during the rally were not hardened criminals but people recovering from substance abuse disorder, like Jeremy Baltz, of Frankfort.
Baltz was convicted of two felonies for possession of dangerous drugs after being caught with methamphetamine and drug paraphernalia. He served time for the convictions from 2007 to 2010, he said.
“I have turned my life around,” Baltz said. “I served my time. I paid my debt to society, and I’m here to say I want my rights back.”
He explained that his life has changed since he was convicted; he went through the 12-Step Program and still goes to meetings, he has a much happier life than he did at that time and he helps addicts on their path to recovery. Despite all of that, Kentucky, his home state, telling him none of that matters and he’s still a felon is devastating, Baltz said.
“It’s wrong,” he said. “I feel it’s definitely wrong. They’re still punishing me for something I’ve done eight or 10 years ago. That’s just not right.”
After everything he’s done to make a change in his life, Baltz said he finds the term “felon” insulting and offensive. To him, being called a felon isn’t any different than calling someone a racial slur.
Amy Riggs, of Lexington, can’t stand that term either.
“I’m not a felon,” she said. “That’s a title. That’s not who I am and that does not define me. It’s felonies that I had, but that does not make me a felon.”
Riggs said she’s a single mother, a U.S. citizen and a taxpaying Kentuckian. Those facts mean she should have her right to vote restored, she said.
She didn’t talk much about her past, instead choosing to focus on the immediate moment and future
“Today, I’m writing a new story with a new chapter,” Riggs said.