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Ex-felons become voters as Maryland primary approaches

Erin Cox
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Advocates spent much of March registering former felons to vote in Maryland's primary election.

On a West Baltimore street corner last week, John Comer launched the same conversation he's begun hundreds of times in the past 22 days.

"You registered to vote, bro?" he shouted.

"Nah, nah," Jeffrey Burns responded. "I got a felony."

"Everybody can vote now," Comer told him. "We passed that law, just for that."

Burns, 54, stopped, shook his head in disbelief, then picked up a clipboard and registered to vote for what he said was the first time in his life.

Activists from Communities United have been signing up hundreds of voters like Burns in West Baltimore neighborhoods and housing projects since March 10, the day a new state law went into effect that allows people with felony convictions to register to vote as soon as they are released from prison. Before that, they had to finish probation or parole.

In an instant, activists said, the law made an estimated 20,000 people in Baltimore and 40,000 statewide eligible to vote. More importantly, they said, it empowered thousands more like Burns, who wrongly believed he would never be eligible to vote again.

The law's passage was fought by Gov. Larry Hogan, who vetoed it in 2015 and this year launched a social media publicity campaign attempting to prevent the legislature from overriding his veto.

Hogan and many fellow Republicans argued that people who have not completed their sentence have not repaid their debt to society and should not be able to participate in elections.

"There's only a tiny minority, a tiny radical minority of people in Maryland who want current felons to vote," Hogan said this year after the General Assembly reversed his veto. Hogan predicted that politicians who supported the policy "won't survive this."

The nonpartisan Communities United is using that sort of rhetoric as a tool to inspire felons to get involved. Posters at Baltimore's Penn North metro station, adjacent to the CVS that burned on national television during last year's riots, read "Ex-offenders we must vote. They're counting on us not to!"

"A lot of them say they can't vote because they're criminals," activist Shebra Johnson said. "That doesn't matter anymore."

So far, Communities United has signed up an average of 100 people each day and is on track to hit 5,000 before the April 5 voter registration deadline in advance of the April 26 primary election. Comer said they got 300 in three hours on their first day. The group has scheduled an April 13 forum for the city's mayoral candidates to address the needs of the ex-offender community.

Burns said he wanted to vote for Barack Obama eight years ago, when he got out of prison and when the first African-American was on a presidential ballot. He wasn't eligible.

Over the course of the next 90 minutes, Communities United volunteers persuaded more than a dozen passersby to register, doling out packages of Skittles or a single Newport cigarette to each new voter.

All but one said they had a felony on their record.

"People nowadays want to have hope," said activist Vernell Bridges. Two of her sons have felony convictions, she said, and one is still incarcerated. She's spent several afternoons this month in Penn North calling strangers "honey" and "baby," and urging them to sign up to vote.

"Whether they believe change will come or not, they want hope," she said.

"The law has already been passed," she hollered to a pair of skeptics. "Ex-offenders, they have rights."

One man muttered, "It don't make a difference," and walked away, but Michael Franks, 68, stayed.

He said he lost his right to vote at 25 after a felony drug conviction. When he had the right, he didn't use it. When he got out on parole in 2009 and wanted to vote, he wasn't eligible.

"I never thought that my voice was going to be heard," Franks said. "I was under the impression my voice didn't matter. There's a lot of people who feel that way. … I'm going to give it a shot. See what it's about, you know?"

De'Shai Williams, 20, missed her bus to work because she stopped by the voter registration table and got to chatting. She said she served three months on a 2013 felony charge related to a domestic violence situation and was currently on probation. The charge, she said, lost her a scholarship to Howard University and cost her right to vote before she could use it.

Getting that right back, she said, is part of helping her rebuild.

"We're individuals, just trying to live in society," Williams said. "You're trying to boost themselves up."

She's been watching the race for mayor and the presidential election, and she's not sure who will win her vote.

"They're not talking about what's going on," she said. "They're talking about themselves."

Comer, lead activist with Communities United, said ex-offenders are most concerned about jobs, then housing and support services. It's sometimes a tough sell to persuade them the political process can help.

"You have to connect the dots," he said. "When you say you can vote for judges, that connects the dots, because judges are connected to the criminal justice system, and the criminal justice system is deeply connected to poor, black communities."

Earlier in the day, he said, police officers tackled a man a few yards away from his voter registration table. A small crowd gathered to watch how police handled the man, and afterward, Comer said 10 people immediately signed up to vote.

Later in the afternoon, a man who said he was a newly released felon wandered up to the voter registration table, a black ankle monitor on his right leg. Activists told him if he was on the street, he was free to register to vote.

"I just got out," he said. "I don't got no place to live. I ain't voting."

Bridges smiled. "That's OK, baby," she said. "Give me your name, we'll get you some help."

ecox@baltsun.com

twitter.com/ErinatTheSun

How to register

The deadline to register to vote, change party affiliation or update an address before the April 26 primary election is p.m. Tuesday. Paper applications can be completed at Motor Vehicle Administration offices, local boards of elections, departments of social services, public college and university campuses and elsewhere. An application can be downloaded from the Maryland State Board of Elections website and mailed in. Residents with a Maryland driver's license or MVA-issued ID can register online at voterservices.elections.maryland.gov/OnlineVoterRegistration.

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How to register to vote

The deadline to register to vote, change party affiliation or update an address before the April 26 primary election is Tuesday at 9 p.m. Paper applications can be completed at Motor Vehicle Administration offices, local boards of elections, Departments of Social Services, public college and university campuses and elsewhere. An application can be downloaded from the State Board of Elections website and mailed. Residents with a Maryland driver's license or MVA-issued ID can register online at http://voterservices.elections.maryland.gov/OnlineVoterRegistration.

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