System may keep eligible felons from voting, report says

October 20, 2004|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,SUN STAFF

Maryland's convoluted law that determines when felons can vote and the absence of a statewide system that tracks ineligible voters could result in people being mistakenly purged from voting rolls this Election Day, according to a report released yesterday by the American Civil Liberties Union.

While seven states permanently bar felons from voting, a handful of others, including Maryland, prohibit certain ex-offenders from voting. But the ACLU report shows that states differ widely in how they determine when convicted felons should be allowed to vote. Only two states, Maine and Vermont, allow felons to vote while in prison.

The report criticized Maryland's system as cumbersome, and prone to inconsistencies and errors.

"In other states, you get something in the mail that says you are off the book, you are eligible to vote," said Amy Cruice, community organizer for the ACLU of Maryland. "It's more clear when you are done with your sentence. Here we have nothing."

The ACLU and others have criticized Maryland's law, saying it's more restrictive and confusing than many other states and disproportionately hurts African-Americans, who have historically faced discriminatory voting practices. Nationwide, nearly 5 million Americans who have been convicted of felonies have lost the right to vote, including 1.5 million black men, the report stated.

In Maryland, nearly 130,000 people were disenfranchised in 2000, about 3.31 percent of the state's voting-age population, according to the report. In 2002, the General Assembly passed a law that restored voting rights to some felons.

The ACLU studied 15 states, where disenfranchisement rates ranged from Virginia's 5.9 percent to Pennsylvania's 0.4 percent.

Civil rights groups and some lawmakers have called the two-year-old change in Maryland statutes an improvement from the previous law, which permanently barred from voting people convicted of two or more nonviolent crimes. But the new law has baffled some lawmakers, elections officials and those hoping to restore their rights, say critics.

"What we got in 2002 was a compromise, but it is totally confusing," said John T. Willis, former Maryland secretary of state and a professor of government and public policy at the University of Baltimore. "It's a totally irrational system."

Just who is banned under the new Maryland law can be difficult to determine. For instance, the state permanently bars felons twice convicted of violent crimes, such as murder. People convicted of one "infamous crime" - a category that includes offenses, such as fraud or corruption - may register to vote after completing their sentence. But people convicted of two or more non-violent crimes can register three years after completing their sentence.

But there is no database that holds all this information.

Without a streamlined procedure, elections officials don't always know whom to purge and whom to restore.

While the state Board of Elections receives reports from the court system identifying newly convicted felons, those reports don't say how long the sentences are.

"All it says is John Smith, date of birth and violation," said Linda H. Lamone, the state elections administrator. "We don't know when a person is eligible to re-register because we don't know when they are done with their sentence. This is the difficult part to administer."

Mistakes occur, and some people find themselves incorrectly on the purge list and faced with proving, for example, that a conviction has been overturned.

Willis points out that building a database with all the necessary information would be costly and could take years to compile.

Marvin "Doc" Cheatham of the Maryland Voting Rights Restoration Coalition, former president of the city elections board, has advocated on behalf of felons' voting rights for years.

Expecting some problems on Election Day, Cheatham has set up a toll-free number for people to call if they encounter problems at the polls: 866-368-8683.

"It's going to be a toss-up when they go to the polls," he said, referring to former offenders who try to cast ballots. "We don't know if they will be able to vote, and they don't know."

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