Felon ballot rights sought Convict sues to gain absentee voting for various inmates

'Very significant issue'

Some say law keeps many black men from taking part in elections

August 07, 1997|By Andrea F. Siegel | Andrea F. Siegel,SUN STAFF

A convicted killer challenging his 1981 criminal prosecution has hit upon a sensitive issue in his latest suit against the state: the increasing number of black men who lose the privilege to vote in Maryland.

The "growing number of African American men incarcerated in the state is having a profound impact on the so-called black community's ability to participate in the political process," Calvin Robinson-Bey contends in a civil suit filed this week in Anne Arundel County Circuit Court.

Robinson-Bey was convicted in 1981 of first-degree murder in Anne Arundel County. Since then, he has filed several appeals and post-conviction suits, at least one of which is pending. Now, he challenges a state law that bars voting by those serving time for a first felony conviction and permanently purges a voter from the registration list after a second such conviction.

He wants the state to set up an absentee ballot system for inmates awaiting trial and for jailed misdemeanor offenders, as well as for incarcerated felons.

With an estimated 1.4 million black men -- or one in seven black men of voting age -- disenfranchised nationally, the loss of a large number of potential black voters is a "very significant issue," said Malcolm Young, executive director of the Sentencing Project, a Washington nonprofit think tank that promotes alternatives to incarceration.

The organization estimated that 4.2 million people of all races are barred from voting because of convictions. While blacks make up about 14 percent of the population, they represent about a third of those ineligible to vote because of convictions.

The penalty falls harder on blacks because their incarceration rate is higher, and, some contend, the disparity is widening because blacks are punished more harshly.

Maryland is among 13 states where felons lose the vote, according to a report by the Sentencing Project. "I think it is important to consider whether or not there is a social cost there, a social impact that ought to be considered outside of whether these people have committed crimes," Young said. The organization figured that half the state's felons lose the vote.

Exactly how many black men in Maryland are affected is unclear. Department of Corrections statistics show that 77.8 percent of the 22,000 people in Maryland state prisons are black. Of the 28,777 felony offenders on parole or probation, 17,998 -- or 62.5 percent -- are black men.

"You are taking out this significant number of black voters, diminishing the political power of black Americans overall," argued David A. Bositis, a senior political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a research organization focusing on black issues.

Mason-Dixon Political/Media Research has estimated that voter turnout in Maryland is as much as 20 percent lower among blacks than whites.

The future of Robinson-Bey's lawsuit is uncertain.

Federal courts have upheld state laws barring felons from voting. University of Baltimore School of Law Professor F. Michael Higginbotham, who specializes in civil rights issues, doubted the suit would change that.

"It has nothing to do with race. It has to do with the convictions. Other prisoners who are not black have their right to vote denied as well," he said.

Last year, 367 people were removed from eligible voter lists because of a criminal conviction, according to the State Board of Elections. That does not distinguish between people with one felony conviction and those with more. The figures are not broken down by race.

According to state law, a person loses the right to vote while incarcerated, on parole and on probation for a first felony conviction but can re-register when the sentence is over, said Thomas Surock, state voter-registration coordinator. Upon a second felony conviction, the right to vote is permanently lost except for a rare gubernatorial pardon.

The state attorney general's office would not comment on the lawsuit or on the law.

In Virginia, which also forbids felons from voting, legislators this year considered a measure to ease that restriction. The bill failed.

In Maryland, registered voters unable to vote in their polling places are allowed to obtain absentee forms.

Robin Harding, facility administrator for the Anne Arundel Detention Center, said the jail has no established routine for getting ballots to inmates.

"If they request an absentee ballot, then we facilitate that. But we have no procedure for that," Harding said.

In a presidential election year, her office receives fewer than 10 absentee ballot requests, she said.

Pub Date: 8/07/97

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