Reintegrate ex-cons by restoring voting rights

February 07, 2002|By Eric C. Olson and Marvin Cheatham

THIS LEGISLATIVE session, members of the Maryland General Assembly can correct a glaring injustice -- that more than 135,000 of its sons and daughters, and more than one in six African-American males, are not welcome at the table of democracy because they have a criminal record.

In the last session, legislation that would have restored the voting rights of those who served their sentences did not pass, but the effort resulted in the formation of an official task force to survey the issue. This year, similar legislation, sponsored by Sen. Delores Kelley of Baltimore and Del. Kerry Hill of Prince George's County, both Democrats, is under consideration by lawmakers.

The Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee scheduled a hearing on the bill for today.

Maryland legislators should take note of a bipartisan group of former lawmakers who considered election reform last year. Chaired by former Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, the National Commission on Federal Election Reform recommended more than a dozen election law changes.

Recommendation 5 calls for each state to allow for restoration of voting rights to those convicted of a felony once they have fully served their sentence. Signatories of the report included Mr. Ford and Mr. Carter, as well as establishment pillars such as Democrats Lloyd Cutler, Leon Panetta, Bill Richardson and Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Republicans Robert Michel, Slade Gorton, John Danforth, Rudy Boschwitz and Maryland GOP Chairman Michael Steele. Maryland legislators should follow the lead of that group and ensure that all Marylanders have the right to participate in the democratic process.

In Connecticut last year, Republican Gov. John Rowland signed into law a bill that restored voting rights to ex-offenders on probation. According to former Connecticut Secretary of State Miles Rapoport, this milestone was reached because lawmakers of both parties understood this as a fundamental democracy issue, not a "soft on crime" measure. The bill had support from the state's departments of adult probation and corrections, which seek ways to prevent recidivism.

Preventing ex-offenders from voting only further removes the individual and his or her family from civic engagement and does nothing to help the transition from society's margin toward the heart of citizenship. In a time when pundits chafe at record-low levels of voter turnout, one of the best indicators of future voter participation is whether one's parents voted.

Why then, as ex-offenders transition to rebuilding their lives and getting on their feet, are they denied the ability to show their children good citizenship at the polling place? We hear a lot about "breaking the cycle," and we hear politicians talk about the need for people to help themselves. Why not, then, actively encourage ex-offenders to vote?

Canada uses a reasonable approach in which individuals are registered to vote after they leave prison -- literally and symbolically welcomed into society with their full democratic rights.

Restoring voting rights to those who have served their sentences is not, of course, going to magically and immediately result in legions of new upstanding citizens; long-standing socioeconomic disparities, a failing penal system, the causes of drug addiction and other social afflictions need attention for widespread transformation.

Restoring ex-offender voting rights would help individuals and their families -- those who are looking to participate -- to engage in active citizenship and prove a commitment to the ideals of civil society.

It is in the interest of all of us to acknowledge and encourage those who seek the path of redemption. The very least we can do is restore the ability to participate in the democratic process. We can ill afford to waste citizenship.

Eric C. Olson is deputy director of the Center for Voting and Democracy in Takoma Park. Marvin Cheatham is founder of the Maryland Voting Rights Restoration Coalition.

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