ANNAPOLIS- In what they describe as an effort to “put Maryland in the political mainstream,” a group of legislators and civil rights advocates is backing legislation to abolish voting restrictions on convicted felons who have served out their prison sentences.
Accompanied by representatives from the Maryland Democratic Party, Justice Maryland, Progressive Maryland, the American Civil Liberties Union, the League of Women Voters and the Maryland Legislative Black Caucus, Del. Salima Siler Marriott, D-Baltimore City, told a news conference Wednesday that she will introduce a bill that would “ensure that any individual who has completed their incarceration has the right and the responsibility to vote.”
“We believe the re-integration back into society is the most important aspect in decreasing recidivism,” she said from a lectern surrounded by signs reading, “Maryland: Got Democracy?”
Current state law prohibits anyone convicted of “theft or other infamous crime” from voting at any point during his or her sentence, including parole, probation and community service. Repeat offenders must wait an additional three years beyond completion of the sentence to vote.
Marriott’s bill would allow any convict who is not imprisoned or waiting to serve a prison sentence to cast a ballot.
In her written statement on the bill’s goals, Marriott said that she wants to eliminate confusion surrounding the definition of an “infamous crime” and “put Maryland in the political mainstream” by making its voting laws more like those of other states.
“This affects 140,000 people in the state,” said Maryland Democratic Party Chair Terry Lierman. “Only 13 states, including Maryland, deny the vote to these people. This is a no-brainer.”
Maryland Republican Party spokeswoman Audra Miller declined to speak about Marriott’s bill directly, but said that legislation that eases voting restrictions could lead to more instances of fraud in the state.
“Because of these laws passed by some Democratic legislators, the integrity of our election system in Maryland has been seriously damaged,” she said in an interview.
Michael Blain, who served a prison sentence for robbery between 1995 and 2001 and who now is a national spokesman for formerly incarcerated people, said that the current voting law should be changed because it singles out specific groups.
“The disenfranchisement of people with felony convictions is not coincidental,” he said. “It affects primarily people of color and poor people.”
In a separate interview, George Liebmann of the Calvert Institute for Policy Research, a conservative think tank based in Baltimore, was more skeptical about the bill. He stressed the need for “a reciprocal relationship between duties and rights.”
“My feeling is that if someone is still under the criminal justice system, he shouldn’t be given the franchise,” Liebman said.
Still, Marriott said she thinks that her bill has the potential to pass this year.
“Through the veto overrides, this General Assembly has demonstrated that it wants to expand democracy,” she said.
Del. Anthony J. O’Donnell, R-Southern Maryland, the House minority whip, said he does not think support for the bill exists. “That’s a particularly volatile issue, especially for an election year,” he said.