Reclaiming voting rights

August 19, 2004

TO REGISTER to vote, Hassan Allen-Giordano needed to prove to Baltimore election officials that he had completed his prison term for a drug offense. By law, the convicted felon should have been able to register without question -- he had served his time. But the city election board had Mr. Allen-Giordano's felony conviction on record. And, under Maryland's ill-conceived and unworkable voting rights restrictions, there's no system for purging that scarlet letter.

Convicted felons, from Arizona to Virginia, face a patchwork of state laws that bar or curtail their voting. Florida, which gained notoriety for voting irregularities during the 2000 election, represents the extreme end of the spectrum. It strips convicted felons of their right to vote -- permanently. Vermont and Maine are at the other end, the only two states that allow prisoners to vote while imprisoned. Maryland falls somewhere in the middle of this muddle.

In trying to restore voting rights to certain ex-felons, Maryland has created a bifurcated system that serves neither the individual nor the state. A citizen convicted of a felony must serve his time before reclaiming the right to vote, but the onus on Marylanders twice convicted of a nonviolent felony is greater.

They must serve their sentence, complete parole and probation, pay restitution and fees -- and wait three years before they can reregister to vote. And then, like Mr. Allen-Giordano, they may be asked to prove what no state document can prove: that they have served their debt to society in total. A gubernatorial pardon or clemency would solve that problem, but how many of those are granted?

Mr. Allen-Giordano, a voting-rights advocate, eventually reclaimed his right to vote. His probation officer wrote a letter confirming the 28-year-old had successfully completed his sentence -- although the agent was under no obligation to verify his status.

Maryland, despite being ranked among the top states in income and education, falls at the bottom in voter registrations. Its ex-felon law is costing the Free State thousands of potential voters. Advocates estimate as many as 150,000 to 200,000, and a disproportionate number are African-Americans. Maryland's attempt to improve its former "Two strikes and you've lost the right to vote" law demands some serious hoop-jumping to reclaim a fundamental right of citizenship.

What's the point? If we are trying to reintegrate ex-offenders into society, why make it so difficult for them to participate in society's most common cause -- electing our representatives? Restricting their right to vote needlessly alienates them, when the state should be encouraging civic responsibility.

Maryland can't continue to parse its way to a workable system that accounts for a convicted felon's transgression and return to society and establishes a system to confirm the same. It should follow the lead of Pennsylvania and 12 other states and use the prison wall as the dividing line. Those inside the wall can't vote. Those on the outside, who have served their time, can.

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