Senate OKs bill on right to vote

Measure would repeal state law that bars some felons from polls

Hot debate, narrow victory

March 30, 2002|By Tim Craig | Tim Craig,SUN STAFF

The Maryland Senate narrowly approved a bill yesterday that would restore voting rights to some convicted felons, handing a victory to black lawmakers who fought hard to get the measure passed.

In a 26-20 vote, the Senate agreed to repeal a provision of state law that disfranchises many people twice convicted of crimes.

The Senate proposal would still bar from voting offenders twice convicted of violent crimes, but others could vote three years after completing their sentences.

Yesterday's Senate action followed a passionate floor debate Thursday and extensive lobbying from black senators to get the 24 votes needed to pass the legislation.

"We worked it hard. We worked it real hard," said Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden, a Baltimore Democrat. "We talked to people until the last day, and in a couple instances we put the chips on the table and did what we had to do."

The House of Delegates passed a similar bill March 21. The House bill would allow even violent criminals to vote, so the two chambers will have to resolve their differences before a final bill is sent to the governor.

Del. Salima S. Marriott, a Baltimore Democrat, said she expects the House to accept the Senate bill with its exceptions for violent criminals. Gov. Parris N. Glendening has said he would sign the Senate version.

Most Republicans opposed the legislation and said they will use it in this fall's election to portray Democrats as being soft on crime. GOP leaders also said they plan to gather enough signatures to force a referendum on the issue in November.

"I think it is going to be difficult for some citizens to say it is all right for a sexual predator to vote or a person who has been convicted of treason to vote," said Sen. J. Lowell Stoltzfus, an Eastern Shore Republican and the Senate minority leader.

Only one Senate Republican - Robert H. Kittleman of Howard County - voted for the bill yesterday. Eight Democrats from rural or suburban districts joined Republicans in voting against it.

"I think it's a step backward," said Sen. Norman R. Stone, a Baltimore County Democrat who opposed the bill. "You are going to have people convicted of multiple drug offenses able to vote."

The Legislative Black Caucus argued that Maryland's law stemmed from the Jim Crow era when Southern states sought ways to keep blacks out of the voting booth. A diverse coalition including religious leaders, the American Civil Liberties Union and gay rights groups supported changing the law.

"We believe in redemption, and we ought to trust people and not distrust," Richard J. Dowling, a lobbyist for the Maryland Catholic Conference, said after yesterday's vote. "This is what this bill is all about."

Maryland is one of 12 states that deny some offenders the right to vote. If the House legislation were approved, an estimated 60,000 convicted offenders would regain their right to vote.

The effort to repeal Maryland's law is part of a nationwide campaign. Delaware lifted its ban two years ago, and the New Mexico Legislature repealed that state's ban last year.

Eric C. Olson, deputy director of the Center for Voting and Democracy in Takoma Park, said it is unclear how many ex-offenders would actually register if they regained their voting rights.

"Personally, I don't think you are going to see the outcome of elections change because of this," Olson said.

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