The Democratic-controlled General Assembly began the process of overriding Republican Gov. Larry Hogan's vetoes Wednesday, with one chamber upholding legislation that would allow felons to regain the right to vote as soon as they leave prison.
After a passionate 45-minute debate, members of the House of Delegates voted 85-56 to uphold the bill they passed last year. The House reached the minimum number of votes needed to override Hogan's veto after the bill received 82 votes last year.
The House also voted to override the governor's vetoes of a Howard County bill that changes the way hotel taxes are collected and $2 million in the state budget that was earmarked for the Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts, a community arts center in House Speaker Michael E. Busch's district.
The Senate is expected to vote on veto overrides on Thursday.
Republican delegates argued Wednesday that felons have committed crimes such as murder, rape and human trafficking, and should complete their full sentence — including parole and probation — before regaining the right to vote.
"There are consequences to being a convicted felon," said Del. Jason Buckel, an Allegany County Republican.
Supporters of the bill — mostly Democrats — argued that ex-inmates trying to rejoin society deserve a say in how they are governed. Some pointed out that former felons have jobs and pay taxes, and shouldn't be taxed if they can't vote for their representatives in government.
Del. Cory McCray, the Baltimore Democrat who sponsored the bill, said restoring voting rights is an important step toward helping ex-offenders.
"This in no way is a silver bullet, but this is a step in the right direction," he said.
Del. Eric G. Luedtke, a Montgomery County Democrat, said voting is a sacred right and lawmakers should think very carefully when considering whether to take that right away.
"Voting is not just a right, it is the fundamental right," he said. He urged lawmakers not to give into the "fear-mongering" of opponents who evoked images of murderers and rapists.
Most people convicted of felonies are simply people who "made a mistake," he said.
Del. Dan Morhaim, a Baltimore County Democrat, made a statistical argument in favor of overriding the veto. He said after Florida restored voting rights to felons, recidivism — instances of offenders committing more crimes and returning to prison — fell from 33 percent to 11 percent.
"This is actually an anti-crime bill," he said.
Del. Anthony O'Donnell, a Southern Maryland Republican, said he sympathized with arguments about redemption for people out of prison. But he said redemption can come only after an individual has paid his debt to society.
"That's what judicial punishment is," he said.
After the vote, ex-convicts Perry Hopkins and Reginald Smith-Bey expressed relief. The men, who worked with the advocacy group Communities United to lobby for the bill, watched the vote from the House gallery.
"It made me cry," said Hopkins, a 54-year-old man from Baltimore's Upton neighborhood who has been in prison several times, mostly for drug offenses. He was last released in 2012 and recently completed probation. He hopes to vote for the first time this year.
"All through my life, because of my criminal record, I couldn't vote," he said. "I could only witness. I couldn't participate."
Smith-Bey, 53, said he served 14 years in prison for attempted murder before being released in 2012. If prison officials think he's ready to be released, he said, he should be able to participate fully in society — including voting.
He said he has often encouraged young people to vote but "couldn't lead by example" because he's on probation.
Current law allows felons to vote after they complete their parole or probation. But advocates say the law is confusing, and as a result, some ex-offenders were reluctant to try to register to vote.
The legislation would extend the vote to an estimated 40,000 former felons who are out of prison but still on parole or probation.
Three delegates joined the 82 who voted for the legislation last year: Del. Michael A. Jackson, a Prince George's County Democrat who missed last year's vote; Del. Elizabeth G. Proctor, a Prince George's Democrat who has taken the seat of her late husband, who was absent during last year's vote; and Del. Pamela G. Beidle, an Anne Arundel County Democrat who changed her vote this year.
Six Democrats joined 50 Republicans in opposing the override.
Hogan declined to comment on the vote. When he vetoed the bill, he wrote to legislative leaders that making felons wait to vote until completing all aspects of their sentence "achieves the proper balance between repayment of obligations to society for a felony conviction and the restoration of the various restricted rights."
Hogan vetoed three other measures passed by the legislature last year. One would make possession of a marijuana pipe a civil offense, not a crime. One would tax hotel rooms that are reserved through online-booking sites. One would set higher thresholds for law enforcement to seize cash and property in suspected drug deals.
Because those laws originated in the Senate last year, senators will vote first on whether to override those bills when they meet Thursday.
Baltimore Sun reporter Michael Dresser contributed to this article.