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Will Md.'s 'newly enfranchised' shake up the election?

Back in March, when the way was paved for felons on parole and probation to register the vote, their biggest advocates envisioned the possibility of tens of thousands of civic-minded prodigal sons and daughters swelling the voting rolls.

Wouldn't that be the ultimate peaceful protest heard 'round the world, albeit less photogenic than a CVS store aflame during that violent eruption after the funeral of Freddie Gray last year?

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The registration tally is not in yet, and it is not likely to hit 20,000 — the estimated number of men and women under some kind of penal supervision in Baltimore alone. But something's happening out there: A disparate band of hearty souls with change as their common goal has managed to take the message to thousands of people.

Knocking on doors of rowhouses and apartments. Collaring shoppers in parking lots. Preaching in pulpits. Teaching in jails. Drawing people to information tables in shopping centers and around Penn North. Staking out parole offices to catch men and women coming and going to let them know that, as of March 10, they became eligible to vote. An ex-offender group called Out For Justice says that just last Friday it registered 18 people outside one parole office. Another group, Communities United, estimates that it had registered about 1,000 people by Monday, about 40 percent of them ex-offenders. The group planned to keep at it until the midnight deadline Tuesday. B.U.I.L.D., the community empowerment organization, expected to register at least 1,700 voters of all kinds by the deadline. (That includes 950 students registered on college campuses in Baltimore last week.)

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At the Board of Elections, employees are prepared to work overtime processing registration forms, but they are confident nothing like the crush of 2008 awaits them. Back then, according to Armstead Jones, the election board director, more than 20,000 forms poured in during the week before the presidential primary. This time around, he said, registrations are "about the norm."

Still, the newly enfranchised — added to a fired up, sick-of-the-way-things-are electorate — could shake things up in this city, if not this month, then definitely in the near future. People like Diamonte Brown, the director of Out For Justice, are looking beyond the primaries. "We're not about rushing things so that we can have a lot of numbers," Ms. Brown says. "We don't want to send unprepared voters to the polls."

A number of folks who are registering voters tell me that an alarming number of would-be voters, whether ex-offenders or not, lack reading skills to even fill out applications. Others missed out on whatever civics lessons were taught in school and are rather clueless about how government or politics work. So Ms. Brown's long-term approach is understandable. She wants to educate as many as possible among the 40,000 ex-felons in the state who have become prospective voters while still under penal supervision.

That still leaves a whole lot of men and women who do know what's going on, and Perry Hopkins, a field organizer for Communities United, wants them to come together as a voting block to "take this election." They will hear from mayoral candidates in a forum next week at Douglas Memorial Community Church. "They realize that collectively they have power," Mr. Hopkins, himself an ex-offender, told me. "People are now standing up to have a voice in what happens next."

The possibility of being taken seriously makes some ex-offenders listen to pitches about registering. Like many Baltimoreans tired of hearing the same old campaign promises every election cycle, many of them need persuading that voting matters. So advocates connect the dots: Decisions by the mayor and the City Council determine how they and their neighborhoods fare when resources are divvied up. How many people vote in a neighborhood has a lot to do with how much their needs are taken into consideration. How much clout can, say, a Sandtown wield, when only 137 people voted in the 2011 primaries?

"Now I can make my voice heard," Baye Parker explained the other day as he picked up his kids from school. He is 34 years old, works as an advocate and counselor for the social justice organization Safe and Sound Campaign and is on parole until 2019. "Baltimore needs a change, especially the hardest hit areas, which happen to be low income, single-parent home communities."

Mr. Hopkins, 55, will cast his first vote ever on the 26th. "If you want to get a good picture, see my face when I come out of the booth," he says.

That could be a picture of a Baltimore healing itself.

E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Email: er.shipp@aol.com.

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