Saturday, January 28, 2006

Felons in Vermont and Maine, including those behind bars, have never been denied the right to vote since those states were founded more than 180 years ago, but neither state keeps data on the number of inmates who vote.

“In Vermont, the criteria for voting is based on the state constitution,” and there is nothing in there to prevent prisoners from voting, said William Dalton, Vermont’s deputy secretary of state.

Long recognized as one of the most liberal states in the nation, Vermont even allows incarcerated criminals to run for political office. Mr. Dalton said that happened in 2002, when a man serving time in a federal prison for tax fraud ran against Sen. Patrick J. Leahy, ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

As Democratic lawmakers in Maryland push for legislation that would give every ex-convict the right to vote, a majority of states have laws or policies that allow felons to vote after their release from prison and/or completion of parole and probation.

The Maryland legislation would give all felons the right to vote immediately upon release from prison. Should the effort succeed, an estimated 150,000 felons would be able to cast ballots in Maryland and could vote as early as the Nov. 7 general election.

“In the past decade, the trend at the state level has been very clear. In the majority of cases, states have made [voting] laws less restrictive” for ex-felons, said Ryan King, policy analyst for the Sentencing Project, a Washington think tank that advocates alternatives to imprisonment.

According to the Sentencing Project, the District of Columbia and 13 states allow felons to vote after they are released from prison. Four other states, including New York and California, restore a felon’s voting rights after release from prison and completion of parole.

Another 16 states restore voting privileges after a felon completes probation, prison and parole.

Maryland ended its lifetime voting ban for nonviolent repeat offenders in 2002, once they complete all parole and probation requirements and pay all fines and restitution.

In Virginia, some ex-felons can apply for restoration of their voting rights five years after completing their sentences. Those convicted of felony drug offenses must wait seven years to apply. However, the governor decides, on a case-by-case basis, which ex-felons will be allowed to vote.

“An estimated 4.7 million Americans, or one in 43 adults, have currently or permanently lost their voting rights as a result of felony conviction,” the Sentencing Project said. It noted that 1.7 million of those people have completed their sentences.

However, three states — Massachusetts, Utah and Kansas — have toughened voting policies for convicted felons since 1997. Massachusetts and Utah, for example, both have excluded felons who are in prison. Kansas added probationers to the category of felons excluded from voting.

Up until 2000, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts allowed prison inmates to vote. But that year, by a 60 to 40 margin, “voters in Massachusetts approved a constitutional amendment that said people incarcerated for felonies could not vote until after they were released from prison,” said Brian McNiff, spokesman for the Massachusetts secretary of state’s office.

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