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Hogan and the ballot

It was a foregone conclusion that Maryland's Democratic-controlled legislature eventually would muster the votes to override Republican Gov. Larry Hogan's veto last year of a bill extending voting rights to felons once they're released from prison but before they complete probation and parole. Though the governor lobbied hard to sustain his veto, it was clear that state Senate and House leaders had the numbers on their side. The only truly surprising thing about the matter was that of the six bills on which the legislature overrode Mr. Hogan's vetoes, it was this one he made a stink about.

The law, which goes into effect March 10, will allow an estimated 20,000 former inmates to cast ballots in Baltimore's primary election for mayor and City Council if they register with the state Board of Elections by April 5. Another 20,000 are expected to be eligible to vote in the presidential primary state-wide. We don't expect it will make much of a difference in either outcome or turnout, but it does serve as a useful symbolic gesture of the state's willingness to welcome ex-offenders back into society.

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Generally, Mr. Hogan has been a model governor when it comes to those sorts of issues. He has helped push for criminal justice reforms to correct the excesses of the war on drugs, with the promise that the savings will be plowed into better services to prevent recidivism. He has shown a much greater willingness than his predecessor to use his powers of pardon and commutation. And he has ordered a review of the so-called "collateral consequences" of incarceration, such as loss of or ineligibility for professional licenses, that make re-entry so hard.

But Mr. Hogan is reacting as if the sky will fall if people are given the franchise as soon as they're released from prison rather than after they're done with parole and probation. He claims that "only a tiny, radical minority supports this idea," and that "some people may have ended their careers" by voting to override him on this bill.

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Never mind that the lawmakers who overrode the governor's veto are firmly in the legislative majority, not the minority. A majority of the state voted for Mr. Hogan, but an even larger majority voted for Democrats to represent them in the General Assembly.

Perhaps Mr. Hogan has fallen victim to his party's unhealthy obsession with restricting the franchise for people Republicans suspect may end up voting for Democrats. The party has long championed tougher voter ID requirements and shorter early voting periods to guard against the possibility of so-called "voter fraud," even though there's virtually no evidence such abuses are widespread. What voter ID laws and shorter early voting periods do very effectively, however, is put more barriers in the way of immigrants, minorities and young people who wish to cast ballots.

We don't know of any independent polling on the ex-offender voting issue, but when it comes to the question of whether Marylanders are more concerned about expanding access to the ballot or the specter of voter fraud, there's solid evidence that it's the former. When Maryland Democrats sought to establish early voting here in hopes of increasing turnout, Republicans warned it was an invitation to fraud. The voters had the final say, approving it at referendum by a 72 percent to 28 percent margin.

Despite Mr. Hogan's bluster about this being a defining vote for lawmakers seeking re-election in 2018, we expect few outside of the hard-core Republican base are paying much attention. Mr. Hogan's tough talk probably has them riled up, but keeping their support and enthusiasm likely isn't much of an issue for him. Rather, he's wildly popular because he's seen as a moderate Republican who can work with Democrats to get things done in a spirit of bipartisan cooperation. The more he goes around parroting national Republican talking points about this or any other issue, the more he will estrange himself from the broad coalition that put him in office.

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