WASHINGTON -- Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin teamed up with an unlikely political ally on Tuesday -- Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky -- in pushing for federal legislation to allow millions of Americans with felony convictions to regain their right to vote.
Paul, a conservative Republican who many believe is eying a presidential run in 2016, joined Cardin, a Democrat, at a forum on Capitol Hill to call attention to the issue. Despite different political ideologies, the two have introduced similar bills to restore voting rights for felons who have served their sentences.
"We've had some differences over the years, but we have joined forces in recognizing that there's an important policy that we can advance in helping people reenter into our society," Cardin said. "This is one of the Jim Crow laws of our time."
If either measure is approved it would replace a patchwork of state laws that vary widely on when a felon may vote. Three states, including Paul's Kentucky, permanently revoke voting rights for felons. By contrast, two states -- Maine and Vermont -- allow felons to vote by absentee ballot while they are still serving time.
About 4 million people nationwide are barred from voting because of prior felonies, Cardin said, adding that the prohibitions fall more heavily on minorities.
In Maryland, residents with felony convictions can vote once they have served their term, including parole and probation. That same law is in place in 20 other states, including neighboring Delaware and West Virginia, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Nearly 64,000 people in Maryland -- or 1.4 percent of the voting population -- are ineligible to vote because they are still serving sentences, according the Washington-based Sentencing Project.
"It's the biggest problem of voting rights, I think, facing our country," Paul said. "To me the largest impediment to both voting and employment in our country is actually the criminal justice system."
Cardin's legislation, which he has pushed for years, would restore voting rights to all former felons who have served their sentences. Paul's bill would give only those people convicted of non-violent crimes a chance to vote.
At a speech at Georgetown University's law school in February, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called for states to change their laws to allow former felons the ability to vote. But the idea has met with tepid reaction in Congress, including from some centrist Democrats facing reelection this year, and has gained little momentum.
A change made by Congress would affect only federal elections -- those for president and Congress -- meaning state laws would remain on the books for other races. Paul acknowledged that could complicate election administrative efforts in years when both federal and local races appear on the same ballot.