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NAACP races deadline to get ex-felons to vote

The Baltimore Sun

When Tubi Retton, 21, approaches ex-felons and offers to sign them up to vote, she says that most decline politely, believing they are barred from casting a ballot.

"They'll be like, 'I'm all right' " she said yesterday while conducting a voter registration drive on North Avenue in West Baltimore. "It's not that they're not interested, they just don't know they can vote."

She gives a little speech, explaining that a Maryland law was approved and now they can participate, as long as they've completed their court-ordered sentences. Sometimes that changes their minds. So far this season, she estimates that she's registered 20 former felons.

Retton and her friends were part of a last-ditch effort by the city's NAACP to sign up voters before the state's Oct. 14 registration deadline. As of this week, the State Board of Elections reported 3.2 million new voters.

Marvin L. "Doc" Cheatham Sr., president of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP, picked the busy corner of North and Pennsylvania avenues for yesterday's effort because it is in the heart of the 21217 ZIP code - which he said includes the most former felons in the city.

"We are trying to put emphasis on former felons who might be eligible," Cheatham said. "We're going to try and get as many former felons as we can."

Law revised in 2007

A state law that went into effect in July 2007 allows former felons to vote. This will be the first presidential election since the law was passed in which they can exercise that right.

There are 52,000 ex-felons living in Maryland, according to The Sentencing Project, a national organization that tracks how felons re-enter society. About 9,700 of them return to Baltimore each year, said Kimberly Haven, executive director of Justice Maryland, a Baltimore-based advocacy group.

Haven, who has served time in prison for a white-color crime, was out yesterday with a clipboard full of voter registration forms.

"People are finding that their past doesn't trump their future," she said.

She pushed the state legislature to allow felons to vote, but she said educating felons about the new law is a tougher challenge. At one point, a former felon argued with the volunteers, insisting that he was not allowed to vote.

Board under fire

In the past few weeks, the city's election board has come under fire because of its handling of some of the registration applications from former felons. The handwritten forms are entered into the state database and analysts check names and identification numbers against the courts' database to determine if a potential voter should be disqualified because he or she is serving parole or probation. Sometimes those databases are not up to date or contain errors.

From Jan. 1 through Sept. 23, the Baltimore City Board of Elections sent out 423 letters to former felons in the city, informing them that applications were incomplete or problematic.

"Unless we hear from you further, we cannot continue processing your application," according to the letter.

Cheatham called the letter "sloppy," noting that it was addressed "Dear Applicant" rather than to an individual. The space for a phone number that applicants could call to straighten out problems was left blank; the letter wasn't dated and it didn't include a timetable by which the felons should respond, he said.

"They were disenfranchising people," Cheatham said.

He hoped yesterday to reach some of those people and urge them to contact the elections board. Cheatham believes a second letter should have been sent to those prospective voters.

Corrections made

City election board head Armistead Jones said that he has corrected the letter to include the election board's phone number. He said a phone number was included in the letterhead. Now, he says, there is a name label on each letter over the "Dear Applicant" text. "To me, a lot of issues are being made out of nothing," Jones said.

Nearly identical letters were sent to former felons in other parts of the state, but the city sent out the most. In the same time period, 31 letters were sent to Baltimore County felons, 12 to Prince George's County and 10 to Caroline County.

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