Tuesday, July 3, 2007

BALTIMORE — Former felons registered to vote yesterday under a new Maryland law allowing convicts who have completed their sentences to vote without a waiting period.

“This is our Independence Day. Today, we begin the process of restoring our vote and our voice,” said Kimberly Haven, a former convict and leader with Justice Maryland, a Baltimore group that advocates for criminal justice reform.

Before the law took effect Sunday, people with two felony convictions who had completed their sentences were required to wait three years to register.

Only former convicts who have finished their sentences, either in prison or on parole or probation, are eligible to register immediately under Maryland’s new Voting Registration Protection Act of 2007. It does not discriminate between felons convicted of violent and nonviolent crimes.

Gov. Martin O’Malley, a Democrat, signed the bill into law in April as Maryland joined 37 other states with similar laws.

Justice Maryland estimates that more than 52,000 Maryland citizens with felony records can now register to vote.

Supporters don’t know how many might register, but former inmate David Waller said he was happy to be among the first. He worked for three years to help get such a law passed.

“We have earned a second chance,” he said. “I’ve cleaned up my life.”

Mr. Waller registered at the Baltimore Board of Elections office alongside his son, Chris Montague, 18. “I’m very proud of him today,” Mr. Montague said.

Former felon Marlo Hargrove Sr. said he deserved the right to vote. “Having my rights taken away and not being able to voice my opinion made me feel truly lost,” he said.

The Maryland Crime Victims’ Resource Center opposed the change.

Russell Butler, the group’s executive director, said that under the new law criminals do not have to finish paying any court-ordered restitution before they register.

“Before someone is registered to vote, they need to pay their obligation to society and that also includes the obligation to the victim,” he said.

The registration event began a weeklong, statewide publicity campaign for Maryland Got Democracy, a coalition that includes Justice Maryland, the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland, Common Cause Maryland, the Justice Policy Institute and the Maryland League of Women Voters.

The coalition will host registration drives in neighborhoods with high concentrations of former felons, starting in Baltimore.

The last day to register to vote in Baltimore’s September 11 primary is Aug. 21.

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