Ex-felons to Hogan: Let us vote now

Erin Cox
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Ex-felons want Gov. Larry Hogan to sign a law restoring voting rights to felons before they're off parole.

Perry Hopkins expects his future grandchildren to ask where he was the day the United States elected its first black president.

He'll have to say he was a convicted felon, released from prison but not yet allowed to cast a vote.

"That's part of my legacy, that's what I have to pass on," said Hopkins, 54. "I had to stand on the sidelines and watch history. I couldn't participate."

Hopkins and a handful of other ex-offenders rallied in Baltimore on Monday in the hope of persuading Gov. Larry Hogan to sign a bill that would restore voting rights to felons before they complete the terms of their probation and parole.

The General Assembly, which is controlled by Democrats, voted largely along party lines this spring to approve the bill. But Hogan, a Republican, hasn't made up his mind about whether to sign it, an aide said.

More than 500 bills still await action by Maryland's new governor. Less than three weeks remain for him to sign them, veto them or let them become law without his signature. He plans to sign 350 into law on Tuesday, but granting full voting rights to felons out on parole is not among them.

It was among the more divisive debates in Annapolis this spring. Opponents argued that ex-offenders who haven't completed parole and probation haven't fully repaid their debts to society.

"They haven't earned back the right to vote yet," said Del. Neil Parrott, a Western Maryland Republican. "The reality is, a lot of these people could be going right back into the system. … The second they get out of jail, they could vote the next day? That doesn't make any sense."

Parrott has organized referendum fights against other controversial Maryland laws. He said his website, mdpetitions.com, has funnelled more than 2,000 emails to Hogan urging him to veto the law.

Hopkins, who said he has "several" felony charges among his 24 convictions, hopes to convince the governor that if an ex-offender is considered safe enough to live in society, her or she deserves to participate in it fully.

Delano Handy has never had the right to vote. He was already a drug felon when when he turned 18.

"We put ourselves in this situation," said Handy, 24. "But when you put us back into society, you say we're citizens.

"But we can't vote."

Maryland is one of 39 states that allow ex-convicts to vote after they have completed their sentences for felony convictions, including any probation or parole, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

In 2007, the state eliminated a law that required them to wait until three years after they had completed their sentences to vote.

Approximately 40,000 former felons in Maryland are out of prison but unable to vote.

"What has happened over the last couple of weeks in Baltimore shows us the danger of shutting people out of the democratic processes that impact their lives," said Hopkins,an organizer with Communities United.

"I've never seen the inside of a voting booth," he said. "There is a very large community out there hungry to get a chance to try it. Right now, this city is tasting change."

The legislation was pushed by freshman Del. Cory McCray, a Baltimore Democrat who served 10 months at a Western Maryland facility as a teenager for dealing drugs.

McCray never lost his right to vote because he was convicted as a juvenile. But he said many in his East Baltimore district are disenfranchised and shut out of access to housing programs and jobs because they have criminal records.

"These people are our families," McCray said. "They're our friends, our neighbors. They have kids who go to our schools and they shop in our grocery stores."

The least they should be able to do, he said, is participate in the city's democracy.

"They deserve an opportunity to be heard," he said.

Though Hogan has not made his position on the legislation known, he plans to sign a separate law that would allow people convicted of some nonviolent misdemeanors to have their records expunged.

Advocates consider that legislation crucial to helping people with minor criminal records find jobs.

The governor is still deciding what to do about two other controversial bills passed by the legislature this spring, aides said. One would set a two-year moratorium on hydraulic fracturing for natural gas. The other would require online hotel booking services to give more tax money to the state.

The ban on natural gas fracking garnered bipartisan support in the legislature, but its fate is far from certain.

Hogan has said he supports fracking— and the jobs it would bring to economically depressed areas of Western Maryland — provided it can be done in an environmentally friendly way.

In recent weeks, researchers published a study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences showing for the first time that contaminants from fracking had showed up in shallow drinking wells in Pennsylvania. And officials from Oklahoma acknowledged for the first time a link between fracking and increased seismic activity there, including earthquakes.

The other bill involves how much money online booking companies such as Expedia remit to the state as a hotel tax.

Supporters say it closes a loophole that has allowed internet companies to evade millions in tax liability. Opponents of it contend it represents a new tax on the hospitality industry and have urged the governor to veto it.

Aides to Hogan said he might sign more bills on May 21, but offered no hint of which those might be. Any bills not signed or vetoed by the governor by May 30 will become law.

ecox@baltsun.com

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Awaiting the governor's signature

Gov. Larry Hogan plans to sign 350 bills on Tuesday. Some of those laws will:

•Raise the maximum speed limit to 70 miles an hour on certain Maryland highways.

•Grant more flexibility to successful charter schools.

•Double the amount plaintiffs can collect in civil suits filed against state or local governments, including for police brutality cases.

•Empower police agencies across the state to use body cameras.

•Repeal stormwater runoff fees and require counties to come up with a plan to pay for stormwater projects.

•Give military retirees an extra tax break on their pension income.

•Modernize the state's public records laws for the first time in 45 years.

•Establish a "business ombudsman" to improve the state's customer service for companies.

•Create a new secretary of commerce to oversee business and economic development.

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