- The Washington Times - Monday, April 9, 2001

An alliance of human rights groups and Democratic lawmakers advocate one more form of voter reform: the right of ex-felons to cast a ballot.

In Maryland, a representative of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People testified last week before a legislative committee for a voter restoration act in behalf of ex-felons.

In Florida, the Legislature is expected to vote this month on a bill proposed by a group of black lawmakers seeking to restore voting rights to convicted felons one year after their sentences are completed.

And in Washington state, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals will eventually decide if Muhammad Shabazz Farrakhan, a black felon who ran for state representative shortly after his 1996 release, may cast a ballot, despite the fact he still owes $24,000 in restitution to his theft victims.

The issue is drawn tightly as a partisan matter, although most advocates of change refuse to see it that way.

The Florida lawmakers advocating change are all Democrats. In Maryland, the bill has almost exclusively Democratic support. "I would hate to see it become a partisan issue and happy to see that it hasn't, at least at the state level," said Jenni Gainsborough, senior policy analyst at the Sentencing Project, a research group that completed a study on the issue along with the liberal Human Rights Watch.

Miss Gainsborough acknowledged that any strides made in the states would benefit Democrats. "Since [most felons] are mostly poor and people of color, most people guess they would be Democrats," she said.

Said Dennis Cronin, the Spokane, Wash., lawyer representing Mr. Farrakhan: "It sure would have helped Al Gore in Florida."

In recent months, 10 states have considered measures that would loosen voting restrictions on felons who have served their time. Measures have also been introduced in Congress but died in committee.

During testimony before Congress in 1999, NAACP's Washington director, Hilary Shelton, said "felony voting restrictions are the last vestige of the voting prohibitions in the United States."

Only Maine and Vermont allow convicted felons to vote while in prison. States have different laws regarding voting after release, ranging from no vote at all to full restoration.

Those who believe in revoking felons' voting privileges cite the 14th Amendment, which says the right to vote is denied to those who have "abridged" their basis of representation.

After all, they note, judges, district attorneys and other law enforcement officials are put in office by popular vote in most areas.

Opponents of that thought believe such constitutional provisions are vague at best. With incarceration at an all-time high, they say that the high percentage of jailed blacks constitutes disenfranchisement.

The argument resembles claims made about the death penalty, which has been unsuccessfully attacked as unconstitutional on the basis of racial discrimination in the numbers executed.

"They also rely on the Voting Rights Act, which says there cannot be a law that disqualifies a certain race," said Marc Stern, a civil rights lawyer at the American Jewish Congress. "The lower courts have reached mixed rulings on this. But it is OK to have disqualification at the level of constitutional law."

Mr. Stern called it a partisan issue in which black Republicans are just as resistant to a change in the law as their white peers. He noted that all legislative endeavors at both the state and federal level were initiated by Democratic lawmakers, mostly black.

"It is a debate that is really shaping up here, and the black vote is very important," Mr. Stern said.

During hearings before the Maryland state Senate's Economic and Environmental Affairs Committee last week, NAACP President Kweisi Mfume said "voting is an integral part of being a productive member of society. We should be encouraging ex-felons to vote, not prohibiting them."

In Florida, where an estimated 30 percent of black males have lost their vote, felons must apply to have their voting rights restored. Five hundred of the state's 600,000 ex-felons had their voting rights restored last year.

The current bill to give the vote to those felons out of the criminal-justice system for one year has a chance of passing even as Florida's two-month legislative session is approaching an end.

"There is not a great deal of opposition," said Chip Collette, a Tallahassee lawyer who is also active in state Republican politics. He said there is even some Republican support for allowing ex-felons to vote."The issue has been well-presented, for better or worse, by proponents."

Mr. Cronin, the Spokane lawyer, said he is finding the same thing.

"I'm amazed that people are encouraging about it," he said. "These are people who should be able to vote. They can do everything everyone else in society can, except vote."

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