ANNAPOLIS – Maryland legislators are revisiting the policy that keeps thousands of Maryland residents from participating in the electoral process.
Tuesday is the first meeting of a task force to study the disenfranchisement of more than 135,000 Maryland residents twice convicted of felonies. Under consideration is whether to repeal the law that bars these former convicts from voting.
The bill to repeal the law has been before the House and Senate three times, being defeated each time. After the bill’s third defeat, lawmakers compromised to create a task force to study the issue.
“A lot of people don’t know this law even exists,” said task force co- chairman Delegate Kerry A. Hill, D-Prince George’s. “[Felons] are trying to get their lives together, and there are certain pieces that are important to regaining what they have lost. They want to be a part of the community but this law withholds that.”
Hill, who deals with many ex-felons as a pastor, said many of these men lead normal lives “raising families and paying bills,” and yet they are prevented from voting. They shouldn’t have to pay all their lives for mistakes made in their early years, he said.
“In effect we are holding this over their heads,” said Hill, co-pastor of New Chapel Baptist Church in Camp Springs, sponsor of a prayer breakfast in Oxon Hill to discuss the issue.
But some think barring a twice-convicted felon from voting is just another rightful punishment. Delegate Samuel C. Linton, D-Charles County, who voted against the bill each time it was introduced, said it will be tough to convince some of his colleagues to change their vote.
“We have always used this as part of the punishment against people who commit felonies,” Linton said.
Across the nation, 3.9 Americans have lost their voting rights as a result of a felony conviction, according to statistics compiled by the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit group that analyzes criminal justice and sentencing issues. In Maryland, the majority of the disenfranchised are black males. The same is true nationally, where 1.4 million black men may not vote because of felony records, according to the Sentencing Project.
Ronald Walters, a political science professor at the University of Maryland, said “because we fought so hard for the right to vote” it’s very important for the African-American community to work towards ending such disenfranchisement.
“This is a travesty. These people have paid their debt to society. They live honorable lives and cannot vote,” said Walters who will speak at the prayer breakfast. “I think it is unconstitutional and immoral.”
Yet, Maryland is not as stringent in its laws as many states.
“Maryland is unlike many states in that it waits until the second felony conviction to withhold voting rights,” said Malcolm Young, Sentencing Project executive director.
Young and Hill agree many proponents of barring felony offenders from voting are misinformed.
Felonies include writing a bad check over $500, Hill pointed out. After one round with policymakers trying to get his legislation through, a delegate commented to Hill on how he did not want a two-time murderer voting.
“I commented to him that rarely are people who commit murder twice released from prison,” Hill said.
Hill’s work dovetails with a national movement to change laws governing voting.
After the political fray in the last presidential election, the National Commission on Federal Election Reform studied the electoral process to see what improvements needed to be made. The commission, with former Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter as co- chairmen, issued a report during the summer recommending states restore voting rights to felons after they serve their sentences. The report also asked that the federal government provide matching grants of up to $400 million annually to the states to improve voting systems. – 30 – CNS-10-26-01