ANNAPOLIS – Working into the early evening Wednesday, senators tried to retool a bill restoring voting rights to felons after some senators criticized the bill as too broad, allowing even those who commit treason to eventually vote.
Both chambers of the Maryland General Assembly debated similar bills Wednesday, with the House approving the bill, 82-57, and the Senate sending it back to committee for changes.
Under Maryland law, first-time felons automatically have their voting rights restored at the end of their court-ordered sentence, including probation, parole, community service, restitution or fines. Second-time felons, regardless of the crime or severity of the sentence, must obtain a gubernatorial pardon to return to the polls.
The House bill, sponsored by Delegate Kerry A. Hill, D-Prince George’s, restores rights to most ex-felons after at least three years pass since their sentence was completed. The original Senate bill restored voting rights without a waiting period.
Even in the House, opponents questioned the broadness of the proposal.
Supporters said it’s the list of laws that disenfranchise that are too broad.
“We pass them. We are responsible for setting felony charges,” said Delegate James F. Ports Jr., R-Baltimore. Ports suggested changing those laws and failing the bill.
Opposition was so strong in the Senate, however, that the subcommittee chairman in charge of the legislation, Sen. Michael J. Collins, D-Baltimore, withdrew it from floor debate rather than risk an unfavorable vote.
“It seemed several senators were interested in the issue, but wanted the bill narrowed,” Collins said.
“I can’t take this back home,” said Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, D-Baltimore. “I don’t have the courage to face my constituents.”
If the committee made changes, he said, he might be able to support it.
Collins met with several senators from the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs committee to consider the concerns.
Adding a three-year waiting period and excluding treason and serious crimes of violence are some of the changes they are considering to the original bill sponsored by Sen. Delores G. Kelley, D-Baltimore.
The committee will likely discuss the amendments Thursday, Collins said. It is unknown when it may return to the floor.
In floor debate Wednesday, some senators, including Sen. Walter M. Baker, D-Cecil, will not be easily swayed.
“What’s this country coming to? Every time I turn around there’s a bill on the floor taking care of criminals,” Baker said.
His job, Baker said, is to take care of the “good” people, not these “bums.”
Collins told the senators he voted against the bill last year, but after reading the report of the task force that studied the issue during the interim and hearing testimony he felt compelled to support it.
“Only people who are really rehabilitated,” Collins said, “are seeking the right to vote.” Many of the people who testified are taxpaying professionals who have been contributing to society.