ANNAPOLIS – The Rev. Charles T. Gordon is a successful businessman, taxpayer and homeowner. He works with at-risk people, helping them to become productive citizens. But 10 years ago, he led a different life — one that cost him his right to vote.
Gordon, 46, of Baltimore, lost his right to vote after his second felony. A right, he said, he didn’t appreciate until he became one of those productive citizens.
“If I can’t vote, who’s going to make a difference in my life?”
A Senate bill introduced recently could change Gordon’s future. It repeals the prohibition on voting registration for persons convicted of more than one felony. The House is expected to introduce the measure this week.
Under the bill, ex-felons could vote after completing any court-ordered sentence, including probation, parole, community service, restitution or fines.
The bill is intended to increase voter registration and to encourage citizenship among those who have been convicted of “infamous crimes,” said Sen. Delores G. Kelley, D-Baltimore. “Infamous crimes” are felonies, treason, perjury, or any crime involving deceit, fraud or corruption.
But it also could serve to clear up a law that’s difficult to enforce and, some say disproportionately targets black males.
Thirteen states, including Maryland, prohibit felons, even if they complete their sentences, from voting. It is one of two states that permanently disenfranchises after the second conviction, and it has a 3.2 percent disenfranchisement rate, versus a national average of 2.1 percent, according to a 2001 Common Cause report, a citizen’s lobbying organization.
Maryland has the 10th highest rate of disenfranchised felons in the country.
First-time felons in Maryland automatically have their rights restored at the end of their sentence, including probation or parole. Second-time felons, regardless of the crime or severity of the sentence, must receive a gubernatorial pardon to return to full citizenship rights.
Many of the disenfranchising crimes, Kelley said, are nonviolent and of limited societal impact.
“Because of youthful indiscretions,” a person could lose their right to vote, Kelley said.
Obtaining a fake ID and passing bad checks over $500 are included on the list of “infamous crimes”, she said.
Plus, the State Board of Elections can’t even enforce the law, she said.
Enforcing the current law is difficult, said Linda H. Lamone, Maryland elections administrator.
Local election boards are only notified of convictions, not whether they are subsequent convictions, Lamone said. Even if the bill passes, she said, they still won’t know if parole or probation was completed.
Voter registration rolls are only checked for name or address changes and death information, and the law prohibits local boards from questioning voters without cause.
“It’s impractical to check every applicant to determine eligibility. Too many databases don’t talk to each other; it needs to be done by hand,” Lamone said. Voters, who sign registrations under penalty of perjury, are mostly taken at their word.
The problem is complicated when people move across jurisdictions.
“What could be a disqualifying (crime) in Virginia, could be different in Maryland,” Lamone said.
Another concern, Kelley said, is the disproportionate number of African- American males who are permanently disenfranchised, because “law enforcement is targeting the war on drugs at the street level, not at the white-collar end.”
“This is a civil rights issue,” said James Browning, executive director of Common Cause. “One-third of the currently disenfranchised are African- American males.” Current law, he said, is “more interested in punishment, not rehabilitation.”
In Maryland, approximately 135,700 felons and ex-felons, 3.6 percent of the adult population, are prohibited from voting, about 80 percent higher than the national average, according to Mark Mauer’s testimony before the Maryland Senate Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee last February.
And an estimated 67,900 black males, 15.4 percent of black males in Maryland, are currently ineligible to vote, 13.1 percent nationally.
“Maryland is among one of the most restrictive states,” said Mauer, assistant director of The Sentencing Project. “In 37 states you’re free to vote from the day you complete your sentence.”
Maryland law, Mauer said, “conflicts with the notion of appropriate punishment. Once you pay your debt to society, you should be free to participate in society.” The law, he said, makes felons “second-class citizens for life” and “interferes with reintegration into society.”
Kelley introduced the bill last year, but it died in committee. She said she’s optimistic about the bill’s passage this year, but worries it may be too controversial for an election year.
“People don’t want to seem soft on crime. If most people really examined this issue, they would feel as I do.”
More organizations are supporting its passage, she said, and last October the General Assembly formed a task force to study the issue.
The Task Force to Study Repealing the Disenfranchisement of Convicted Felons in Maryland included representatives from the NAACP, the National Urban League and the League of Women Voters. Its conclusions parallel those of Mauer and the state elections administration.
“If our system of justice is such that people get rational sentences and they serve their sentences, Kelley said, “then they ought to be returned to full citizenship.”