- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 27, 2003

A growing number of states, nine in the past several years, are allowing convicted felons to regain their voting rights.

Since 1996, nine states, including Maryland and Virginia, have eliminated some voting barriers for people with felony convictions, according to a report by the Sentencing Project, a think tank that advocates alternatives to imprisonment.

Three states — Utah, Massachusetts and Kansas — have toughened voting policies for felons in that same seven-year period, researchers for the report found. Kansas has limited voting to felons on probation; Massachusetts and Utah have disenfranchised felons in prison.

Minority groups advocate that more felons be allowed to vote and argue that felony restrictions reduce their political clout, but critics contend the trend toward increasing the vote by felons cheapens citizenship.

“Allowing more felons to vote … is part of a growing trend to devalue the franchise,” said Richard Lessner, executive director of the American Conservative Union.

“They should show they have earned the right by providing evidence of good citizenship, of being law-abiding and productive,” he said. “We’d oppose any across-the-board restorations of voting rights” for felons.

In Alabama, the most recent state to expand voting privileges for felons, Gov. Bob Riley, a Republican, signed a bill in September that requires the state parole board to provide a “certificate of eligibility to register to vote” to any felon who has completed his sentence and paid all fines, restitution and court costs.

Other states that have approved enfranchisement policies for some felons are Maryland, Virginia, Connecticut, Delaware, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas and Wyoming.

“This is not necessarily a partisan issue. Republican governors of Connecticut, New Mexico and Alabama have signed bills” enhancing voting rights for felons, said Mark Mauer, assistant director of the Sentencing Project.

Connecticut enacted legislation giving the franchise to felons currently on parole. New Mexico repealed its lifetime voting ban for all felons, and Maryland ended its lifetime ban for nonviolent repeat offenders.

John Matson, deputy press secretary for Mr. Riley, said Alabama already had a program that let some felons who had served their time regain their voting rights even before the governor signed the new law.

“The problem was that the program was backlogged and very slow. Some felons were waiting two or three years to vote,” Mr. Matson said. “The law now in effect expedited the process, using the same checks and gate-keeping. And it cut the wait to 60 days.”

In its report, the Sentencing Project said the voting restrictions against felons have been particularly hard on blacks: about 13 percent of black males have lost their voting rights nationwide as a result of such policies.

“The current rates of incarceration of black males suggest that nearly a third of the next generation of black men can expect to be disenfranchised at some point in their lives,” according to a political report in Focus, the magazine of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies.

Mr. Matson said Alabama black leaders were unhappy when Mr. Riley vetoed a bill passed by the state legislature that automatically would have restored voting rights to convicted felons who have served their time. The bill the governor signed — which excludes felons convicted of murder, rape, sodomy and sex abuse — was a compromise.

“The governor wanted felons to regain their voting rights in a timely manner, … but citizens expressed concern over people who commit certain crimes” having their voting rights restored, Mr. Matson said.

Said Mr. Mauer of the Sentencing Project: “There’s no reason people shouldn’t be punished for committing crimes, but their punishment shouldn’t include forfeiting the fundamental democratic right of enfranchisement.

“People have often thought that if a convicted felon has repaid his debt to society, he should be free to vote,” Mr. Mauer said, adding that restoring the franchise would encourage law-abiding behavior by showing criminals that their votes count.

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