- - Monday, January 18, 2016

Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland is a man of judgment and courage. The odds were against his being elected governor of one of the most relentlessly blue states, where conservative Republicans are all but an endangered species. Despite occasional exceptions — Spiro Agnew and Robert Ehrlich come to mind — Democrats have taken success as their due. But Gov. Hogan, both a Republican and a conservative, beat the odds.

He has vetoed legislation that would have automatically restored voting rights to felons on their release from prison even if they were on parole. Under a previous administration Maryland had restored voting rights to all who had “paid their debt to society,” but the governor concluded correctly that the debt was not fully paid as long as the felon was still on probation or parole. Some Democrats, long on sentiment and short on judgment, seemed to think that criminal justice reform, which has wide bipartisan appeal, is more about extending the vote to felons — perhaps to be repaid with partisan gratitude — than as a reward for good behavior.

Waiting for repentant felons to pay their debt in full is a test of patience many Democrats cannot pass, and besides, they may need the votes now to prevent another Republican from winning the state house or a seat in the U.S. Senate. They argue that sentiment and the easy reward is the way to reduce recidivism. This argument echoes the argument of Eric Holder, President Obama’s first attorney general, that one of the compelling reasons why so many felons return to a life of crime is frustration that they are not allowed to vote. But it seems unlikely that a returning felon will steal a gun and stick up his neighborhood 7-Eleven because he can’t vote to put his man on the school board or send a favorite candidate to the legislature.

Reformers of both parties are searching for ways to reduce the prison population and discourage recidivism, a goal we can all applaud, but true criminal justice reform is about fair trials, improved prison conditions; drug rehabilitation, job training and how to ease the path of the straight and narrow. Taking guns away from the innocent and the law-abiding and giving the ballot to felons fresh out of prison is hardly the way to create the better world that men and women of good will want.

Restoring the vote for felons varies widely among the 50 states. In Maryland, along with several other states, the right to vote is restored automatically. Some states require paroled felons who have completed probation to pay all court costs, fines and restitution before the right to vote is restored. This once included Virginia until last year, when outstanding court costs were eliminated as a requirement. Two states, Maine and Vermont, allow convicted felons to vote by absentee ballot while serving their sentences.

Gov. Hogan appears to have beaten the odds again in his fight against cancer, and he’s back at work with a pen to veto legislation that would undo the good work on reform of votes for felons. Democrats haven’t quite figured out how to deal with a man of unflinching principle who enjoys wide public support from voters of both parties.

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