Ex-felons join voting rolls as new Md. law opens way

The Baltimore Sun

When Kimberly Haven was released from prison in 2001, she said she thought she had spent three years "behind the walls" so she could become a responsible contributor to the state.

Then she discovered Maryland had revoked her right to vote. She could not shape local policies. She could not choose the officials who represented her. She was not a full citizen, she said. She felt betrayed.

Yesterday, a new law allowed Haven to register to vote. The law extended the right to vote to 52,000 of the 110,000 people the state previously declared ineligible to vote because of their felony records, according to the Maryland Got Democracy Coalition, which lobbied for the law during this year's General Assembly session.

Haven stood at the gray counter at the Baltimore City Board of Elections yesterday and wiped away tears as those around her handed over their driver's licenses and signed their registration forms - new papers without the sentence "To register you must not have been convicted of an infamous crime."

"When you come home, you are relegated to being a bystander to your own life," said Haven, who spent six years prodding politicians. "You're just a ghost to democracy."

The law, which took effect Sunday, simplifies the rules regarding enfranchisement of Maryland residents convicted of felonies. While incarcerated felons cannot vote (as is the case in 48 states), it allows all felons to vote immediately after they complete their sentences, including parole or probation.

The measure also abolished a law that permanently disenfranchised some former Maryland criminals.

"It's saying, 'We want you to be involved in civic life,'" said Kara Gotsch, who works for the Sentencing Project, which researches criminal justice issues and recently reported that one in eight black males in the nation cannot vote.

Critics argue that voting is a privilege many felons give up when they ignore the law. Jim Pelura, chairman of the Maryland Republican Party, said he was a fan of the old law, which made most convicts wait to vote until three years after they completed their sentences.

"There is the chance they can vote ... for somebody that is very lenient on crime or that they will vote against an attorney general or judge that convicted them," he said. "They are too fresh, too close to the system."

Seven formerly ineligible citizens registered to vote at the city Board of Elections yesterday, according to officials. But the potential impact of this new constituency could be much greater. Advocates say Baltimore is home to the state's largest concentration of former felons who have been barred from voting.

David Waller was in and out of prison on drug and breaking and entering convictions from 1972 to 1999. He registered yesterday, and said he will use his vote to back candidates who vow to beef up ex-offender re-entry programs.

The law also might encourage politicians to seek advice about rehabilitation and crime prevention from the experts: former criminals.

"I think that's an important perspective for politicians and policymakers," Gotsch said.

Maryland's reform is part of a decadelong trend to expand voting rights for people with criminal records. Since 1997, 16 states have created policies that have reduced their restrictions on voting by former offenders, according to a Sentencing Project report.

Rhode Island recently implemented one of the most lenient laws, allowing felons on parole or probation to vote. Florida has rescinded its stringent law that banned voting rights for all felons.

Maryland previously had one of the most severe policies regarding felons' voting rights - it was one of 11 states that permanently revoked voting rights for some felons.

The method for determining if an out-of-prison felon could vote "was very confusing," said Meredith Curtis, a spokeswoman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, forcing freed convicts to climb through a tangle of laws just to find out if they could submit a ballot.

The policy stripped many eligible voters - scared to vote and risk committing another felony - of their rights, Haven said.

For all people convicted of a first-time felony, voting rights were automatically restored when individuals completed their sentences. But before 2002, all other felons were permanently prohibited from voting.

In 2002, Maryland began to change. First-time offenders could vote upon sentence completion, and repeat offenders could vote three years after sentence completion. But anyone convicted of a violent felony was permanently barred.

The state's most recent reform "means Maryland is moving into the mainstream in regard to voting rights," Gotsch said.

For proponents, the concern now is publicizing the law. Haven said she has a 51-day window - the amount of time until registration for the Sept. 11 Baltimore primary closes - to register as many former offenders in the city as she can.

"Prison is something you went through," said Haven, who wouldn't discuss the reason for her three-year sentence. "You survived. And I came out on the other side, and now I'm contributing to my city, my state and my country."


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