Voting rights and wrongs

February 27, 2006

To his credit, Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. has taken steps to help convicted felons re-enter society. His much-touted RESTART program has provided education, substance abuse counseling and other re-entry services to a growing number of Maryland's prison inmates. The philosophy is commonsensical: Give people the tools they need to live a straight life and they are less likely to commit crimes in the future. Nothing about this arrangement is certain, of course, unless one considers the alternative: Felons who aren't accepted back into society are almost certain to fail.

That progressive view of corrections appears to stop short of the ballot box, however. Mr. Ehrlich has made it quite clear that he objects to any effort that would allow all ex-felons to vote. That's disappointing, especially since Maryland's current law regarding voting and felony convictions is a convoluted mess that hurts minorities disproportionately - and is extremely difficult to enforce fairly. Local elections officials must, for instance, keep up-to-date records of criminal convictions involving not only Maryland's legal system but also jurisdictions from across the country.

Under this current state law, people convicted of a felony for the first time have their voting rights restored after their court-ordered sentence is complete - unless they've been convicted of a "crime of violence." That includes any felony committed with a gun. People convicted of these crimes lose their voting rights for life. After a second felony conviction, voting rights are returned only after an additional three-year waiting period.

FOR THE RECORD - An editorial Monday mischaracterized a provision of Maryland's voter registration law. A person convicted of a second felony is permanently disqualified from voting if that felony was a crime of violence. The Sun regrets the error.

It would be far simpler to restore voting rights to anyone who has served his or her debt to society. The General Assembly is considering legislation that would do just that. After all, denying a U.S. citizen the right to vote does no conceivable good, but does keep certain individuals disenfranchised. And how can an ex-offender be convinced that he has been accepted back into society if he is judged unworthy to vote?

It's not hard to fathom why Mr. Ehrlich and many Republicans oppose this idea. Studies have shown a majority of ex-offenders are black and they tend to vote Democratic. In Annapolis, many Democrats have opposed such reforms in the past because they might be seen as being soft on crime. Neither is a legitimate reason not to allow all ex-felons to vote. People who have served their full punishment deserve a second chance - and the full rights of citizenship.

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