Felons who have completed their sentences will be able to register to vote in Maryland under a new law signed by Gov. Martin O'Malley yesterday.
The law, which takes effect July 1, was one of 178 measures the governor signed, including legislation to require stricter emissions limits on new cars and protect the diamondback terrapin.
Advocates say more than 50,000 Marylanders will be eligible to vote as a result of the legislation. Thirty-eight other states allow ex-convicts who have completed their sentences - including any parole or probation - to vote. But the Maryland legislation was among the most hotly debated bills in the recent General Assembly session.
"It certainly doesn't mean the floodgates are going to open, but this underscores the full meaning of citizenship," said Sen. Gwendolyn T. Britt, a Prince George's County Democrat who was a sponsor of the measure. "When you have paid your debt to society ... you should be free to register to vote."
At present, those convicted of most felonies can petition to have their voting rights restored after their sentences plus a three-year waiting period are completed. The bill passed the Senate 28-19 and the House of Delegates 78-60, with substantial numbers of Democrats joining Republicans in opposing the measure.
The bill was one of four that Republican legislators called on O'Malley, a Democrat, to veto. Republicans argued that some crimes, such as rape and murder, are so heinous that perpetrators forfeit their rights to be a part of society. Theoretically, Republican legislators argued, a person could be convicted of treason and then be allowed to vote.
"If they're career violent criminals, do you want them coming out the day they walk out of prison and casting a vote for the state's attorney who may have prosecuted them or for the chief law enforcement officer, such as the sheriff of a county, or for the governor for that matter?" said Del. Anthony J. O'Donnell, the House minority leader from Southern Maryland.
Kara Gotsch, advocacy director of the Washington-based Sentencing Project, said the law puts Maryland in the mainstream nationally in addressing felon voting rights. Some states allow people to vote while in prison and others allow felons to vote while on parole or probation. She said the issue has picked up steam in the last decade, when 16 states have enacted laws similar to the one O'Malley signed yesterday.
Backers of the bill said they don't expect it to have a large direct impact on the electorate. Although more than 50,000 felons will now be able to register, it's unlikely that many of them will exercise the right, said Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller.
"People that have a history of not voting are not going to just pick it up on their own," he said.
Del. Justin D. Ross, a Prince George's Democrat who sponsored a House version of the bill, said he thinks it might have the greatest impact on people who could vote under the previous law but thought they couldn't because they had committed crimes.
"There's a lot of confusion in the state about who can vote and who can't, and this makes it very clear," Ross said.
Kimberly Haven, executive director of Justice Maryland, a Baltimore-based advocacy group, said that regardless of how many people register, restoring voting rights is a key symbolic step to re-integrating ex-convicts into society.
Haven, who spent time in prison for a white-collar crime, said she would not be eligible to vote until 2009 without the new law.
"I went to prison, but it's not who I am," Haven said. "We still have some work to do in terms of people's perception of what a former felon is and what he looks like, but that scarlet 'F' that felons wear across their chests is greatly diminished by the signing of this legislation today."
The governor signed 178 bills into law yesterday. They include measures that:
Extend voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences, including parole and probation
Increase emissions requirements for new cars
Ban the commercial harvest of diamondback terrapins
Establish stricter regulations for controlling storm water runoff
Ban the use of phosphorus, which is damaging to the Chesapeake Bay, in dishwasher detergent
Allow the state to lease portions of the bay floor for oyster restoration projects
Change the date of Maryland's presidential primary to Feb. 12, 2008