- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 21, 2002

ANNAPOLIS Felons who have been convicted more than once could eventually regain their voting rights under a bill approved yesterday by the House of Delegates.

The Senate is considering a matching bill. Both would restore the voting rights after all sentences are completed.

The measure touched off debate in both legislative chambers yesterday. Lawmakers invoked biblical themes of redemption and some racial issues in a split along the General Assembly's more conservative and liberal lines.

Supporters said that former criminals who have served their time are taxpaying citizens who have been disenfranchised of the right to vote. Opponents argued that the ex-cons disenfranchised themselves when they committed felonies.

"What's this country coming to?" asked Sen. Walter M. Baker, Cecil County Democrat. "Every time I turn around, there's a bill on the [Senate] floor taking care of the prisoners. Our job is to take care of the good citizens."

Sen. Michael J. Collins, Baltimore County Democrat, countered that convicted felons who have completed their sentences have paid their debts to society and deserve second chances.

"The national movement is to recognize those people who have rehabilitated themselves and redeemed themselves … and return their right to vote," said Mr. Collins, the floor leader for the Senate bill.

Current Maryland law states that an individual with a single felony conviction may register to vote after serving the sentence.

The House bill would extend that right to those who have been convicted more than once after they serve their entire sentences, including probation, parole, community service and fines.

Maryland is one of 13 states that prohibit convicted felons from voting in some cases once they have completed their sentences.

Under the proposal, election boards would determine if ex-cons had served their entire sentences by checking an automated database developed with the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.

The bill passed the House yesterday by a vote of 82-57, with two abstentions.

House supporters argued that the state's list of felonies is too long encompassing more than 500 crimes that vary dramatically in severity and that people who commit them at a young age should not be penalized for the rest of their lives.

"I ask the delegates to look at ex-offenders, not as people who just got out of prison, but as men and women, blacks and whites, who are taxpaying citizens," said Delegate Kerry A. Hill, Prince George's County Democrat.

But Delegate David R. Brinkley, Carroll County Republican, said, "Our right to vote is more privileged, more sacrosanct" than to trust it to convicted murderers and rapists.

Delegate James F. Ports Jr., Baltimore County Republican, suggested that receiving a governor's pardon is a more appropriate way to restore an ex-con's voting rights.

Last year, similar legislation passed the House but was killed in the Senate.

The legislation has been a priority for the Legislative Black Caucus. The Senate bill has nine co-sponsors the chamber's nine black members.

The bill's chief sponsor, Sen. Delores G. Kelley, Baltimore County Democrat, noted that black men are "disproportionately represented" among those who would benefit from the bill.

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