Advocates Urge O'Malley to Back Restored Rights

By Ovetta Wiggins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Advocates seeking to expand the voting rights of convicted felons in Maryland are stepping up their efforts this year, hoping that the election of Gov. Martin O'Malley will help move bills that stalled in past years.

Leaders from the 2nd Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church met with O'Malley (D) yesterday morning to encourage him to support legislation that, in varying degrees, would restore the voting rights of former offenders.

In Maryland, a first-time offender is able to vote after completing a sentence, including any probation or parole. People convicted of two or more felonies must wait three years before they can vote.

A House bill would allow first-time offenders to vote after they are released from prison. A Senate bill would remove the waiting period for second-time offenders.

"This is an issue that has been addressed in the past, and we want to accomplish something meaningful this time around," said Sen. Gwendolyn T. Britt (D-Prince George's), a lead sponsor.

Del. Justin D. Ross (D-Prince George's) said that current laws are "punitive and discriminatory" and that it is time for a change.

Marvin Cheatham, founder of the Maryland Voting Rights Restoration Coalition, said yesterday that he thinks an expansion of voting rights "stands a better chance" with O'Malley in office. "I just feel like there is a better understanding of the issue," Cheatham said.

Bishop Adam J. Richardson Jr. said it is "unconscionable" that 140,000 former offenders, including 8 percent of Maryland's black population, are disenfranchised because of the voting laws.

"We're talking about huge numbers here," said Richardson, who oversees more than 160 AME churches in Maryland and the District. "The number of votes that are being locked up, so to speak . . . could determine who gets elected."

Nationally, about 5.3 million people are unable to cast ballots because of laws that prohibit voting by those with felony convictions, according to the Sentencing Project, an advocacy group.

The laws vary by state. In New Jersey, for example, felons are allowed to vote after they complete their sentences, probation and/or parole. In Kentucky, felons must obtain a pardon from the governor to restore their voting rights. Maine allows inmates to vote.

Nearly 400 church members joined Richardson in Annapolis yesterday to lobby lawmakers and discuss strategy for moving legislation through the General Assembly.

Sen. Joan Carter Conway, chairwoman of the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee, said that her chamber's bill will come before her committee March 8 and that she will promote its passage. She urged those attending yesterday's event to call members of the Senate committee to help ensure passage.

"We need your advocacy for this bill," Conway (D-Baltimore) said.

"It's really about fairness," said Sen. Verna L. Jones (D-Baltimore), chairwoman of the Legislative Black Caucus. "Once a person has served their time, they should have their vote restored."

The Legislative Black Caucus included the House bill, which was introduced by Del. Aisha N. Braveboy (D-Prince George's), as part of its priorities.

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