House approves bill to allow felons to vote

Similar legislation snags on Senate floor, returns to committee

March 21, 2002|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

The House of Delegates approved a measure yesterday that would restore voting rights to people convicted of felonies and other crimes, but a similar proposal stalled on the Senate floor when senators threatened to derail it.

After the Senate debate delayed action on the measure, Majority Leader Clarence M. Blount, who is making passage of the bill one of his priorities this year, agreed to send it back to committee. Blount, a Baltimore Democrat, said he plans to make changes to the proposal and return it to the Senate floor within days.

"I would hope the Senate will rise to the occasion because it's fundamental," he said.

The bill would eliminate the state's ban on anyone twice convicted of a felony or "infamous crime" - offenses such as writing a bad check or kicking a horse - from voting.

Maryland is one of 12 states that denies ex-offenders the right to vote, a concept that supporters of the bill say dates to the Jim Crow-era when Southern states sought ways to keep African-Americans from voting.

It is estimated that more than 60,000 residents of Maryland, including 12,000 in the city, would regain the right to vote if the proposal becomes law.

But though Michael Steele, the chairman of the Maryland Republican Party, has endorsed the concept, Republicans joined conservative Democrats in trying to kill the bill in the Senate and House of Delegates.

"The reason we should keep it that way is because of the murderers, rapists and pedophiles," said Del. James F. Ports, a Baltimore County Republican, during the House's consideration of the measure. "Why should we open the floodgates to allow multiple felons the ability to vote?"

After a lengthy debate, the House passed the bill 82-57. The House passed a similar bill last year, but it died on a 5-5 vote in what is now the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. Blount, who is chairman of the committee, made a personal appeal to the panel to send it to the floor this year. The committee voted 6-5 Monday to do so.

But when the full Senate took it up yesterday, many lawmakers were clearly hesitant to support it, especially in an election year. "I can't take this back home," said Sen. Thomas L. Bromwell, a Baltimore County Democrat. "The way it is now, I don't have the courage."

Sen. Walter M. Baker, a Cecil County Democrat, struck an angry tone during the debate. "What is this country coming to?" he asked. "Every time I turn around, there's a bill on this floor to take care of the criminals. ... To me, it's really a piece of garbage."

Defending the measure, Sen. Michael J. Collins, a Baltimore County Democrat, responded, "This bill is not about garbage. This is about human beings. It's about redemption."

But to keep the Senate from gutting the bill with amendments yesterday, Blount and other African-American senators requested it be sent back to committee.

Blount said he would amend the bill to exclude violent criminals in hopes of winning more support.

Even with the changes, the bill would restore voting rights to people convicted of two or more "infamous crimes." Maryland has more than 500 such crimes, including using false identification to buy alcohol, making false statements and falsely pulling a fire alarm.

Michael Morrill, a spokesman for Gov. Parris N. Glendening, said the governor would sign the bill if it includes exceptions for violent criminals.

Sun staff writer Howard Libit contributed to this article.

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