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Voting rights for felons spur impassioned debate

Erin Cox
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Do voting rights help ex-offenders re-integrate? Or should it be a reward for good behavior?

Robinette Barmer woke up in Baltimore last week with paralyzing arthritis, but she crawled out of bed anyway and kept moving until she was on the steps of the Maryland State House in Annapolis, shouting "Shame! Shame! Shame!" at Maryland's governor.

Barmer, 60, and the crowd around her hoped to persuade the legislature to override what's become the most contentious veto issued by Gov. Larry Hogan, one that canceled a law granting voting rights to felons more quickly. Currently, they have to first finish their probation or parole.

Of the six bills Hogan, a Republican, vetoed last year, none faces tougher odds for an override than two that would give 40,000 felons the right to vote before their sentences are complete.

All six are set for debate in the Democrat-dominated legislature this week. But no other issue has generated as much passion on both sides as the philosophical divide over the proper message to send ex-offenders who have yet to complete the terms of their release.

Proponents want to make them feel part of society again, arguing it will help them avoid going back to prison. Opponents say felons need to become productive members of society before they earn back the right to vote.

Two of Barmer's sons and one grandson are ex-felons, and she said it's her full-time job to make sure they don't "get discouraged and commit a stupid crime" that sends them back to jail. Crucial to that, she said, is securing their right to vote.

"It makes you feel like you're part of the human race again," she said. "So many of our people, they get out and they feel like they've been stripped of their human rights."

Hogan's political organization Change Maryland encouraged supporters last week to lobby lawmakers to uphold what it called a "common-sense veto" that prevents felons from voting before they have fully paid their debt to society.

"These are people who have destroyed other people's lives," said Del. Chris West, a Republican attorney from Baltimore County. "There are certainly things that facilitate re-entry into society. Voting is not one of them. It's something that takes place on one day once every two years. This is something that should be a reward."

Republican Del. Brett Wilson, a prosecutor from Western Maryland, said he wouldn't object to felons voting before they finish parole if they had served the majority of their time. But he said he's seen too many victims of violent crime devastated when their attackers are out early on parole.

"The victims feel betrayed by the system," he said. "These scars last forever, and the only thing that they have is the sentence. When the sentence is ignored, all they have left is parole. And now we're saying the felons don't have to earn their rights back?"

Wilson, who like West voted against the measure last year, argued that the right to vote doesn't help ex-felons get jobs or build lives, but offering it as a reward could motivate them to do so.

"We want to incentivize a person to prove themselves, to work for it, and to build the self-esteem that comes with that," Wilson said. "That's what makes people successful in life."

Advocates agree that the right to vote alone doesn't determine whether an ex-offender will succeed while out on parole. But they say that the other side is underestimating the powerful message of inequality fostered by losing the right to vote.

Transitioning from prison to a successful life, they argue, is a hard task that requires more than job training and affordable housing, given the many obstacles ex-offenders face in trying to find work.

"You put them in a fight, and you're tying one hand behind their backs," said Del. Nathaniel T. Oaks, a Democrat from West Baltimore. Giving them the right to vote, he said, sends the message that society wants them to succeed.

"It's psychological," Oaks said. "We've got to start somewhere."

Christopher Ervin lost his right to vote 22 years ago after a felony drug conviction. He's since regained it, running for Baltimore City Council and urging lawmakers to let other ex-felons cast a ballot.

Ervin considers it a moral issue that if people pay taxes, they should be allowed to vote for those who represent them. But he also says there's a pragmatic argument that the right to vote is a symbol of empowerment.

"It's part of the whole way that we approach ex-offenders and their re-entry into society," Ervin said. "It's kind of like baking an apple pie with just sugar. You need more. It's comprehensive."

Not long ago, convicted felons permanently lost their right to vote. In 2007, lawmakers decided felons could regain voting rights when they completed all of their sentences. In practice, however, many former felons avoid registering to vote because the law is complicated and attempting to vote when they're ineligible can be a violation of their release.

Late last year, Hogan launched another program to help ex-offenders. He asked his staff to review every "collateral consequence" of incarceration in Maryland law, hoping to remove barriers to getting jobs, housing or drug treatment.

Losing the right to vote while on parole is a collateral consequence Hogan is not willing remove.

"The administration is focused on the proven strategies that actually work to keep people out of prison," Hogan spokesman Doug Mayer said. "Ultimately, not a shred of evidence has been presented by any member of the General Assembly which directly demonstrates that voting prevents people from committing crimes."

House Minority Leader Nic Kipke said he was skeptical that advocates could get the votes required for an override, given that several Democrats voted against the legislation the first time around. He called voting rights for ex-felons a "distracting issue" in the broader conversation about how to help people re-enter society.

"It's hard for many people to swallow returning voting rights to convicted felons," Kipke said.

"Whether these people vote or not, it's not going to change the outcomes of elections," Kipke said. "What this is about is justice. I do not want a rapist, given a sentence that they have not served, to have their rights restored. It is not fair to the victim."

The divide is not strictly along party lines. The bill as written would make it legal for people on house arrest to vote, a provision that prevents Del. C.T. Wilson, a Charles County Democrat and former prosecutor, from supporting the legislation.

"I have no reason not to give people out on parole the right to vote, but that's not all this bill did," said Wilson.

All the bills Hogan vetoed passed by significant margins, but the voting rights provision had the slimmest of them. Two duplicative bills on felon voting rights were passed in each chamber by margins of 82-57 and 82-56 in the House and 31-15 and 29-18 in the Senate. A veto override requires support from three-fifths of each chamber, which is 85 votes in the House and 29 in the Senate.

Also on the agenda this week are whether to override a bill that would make possession of a marijuana pipe a civil offense, not a crime. Two bills would change how to tax hotel rooms reserved through online-booking sites such as Expedia. Another would set higher thresholds for law enforcement to seize cash and property in suspected drug deals.

Advocates for each plan to rally in Annapolis this week, and Democrats are counting votes in both chambers to see which of Hogan's vetoes can be overridden.

ecox@baltsun.com

twitter.com/ErinatTheSun

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