Friday, February 10, 2006

Maryland Democrats these days have a serious political problem called political competition. Four years ago, voters elected a Republican governor for the first time since 1966, and Republican Lt. Gov. Michael Steele this year has a fighting chance to win the seat held for three decades by Democratic Sen. Paul Sarbanes. So the Democrats, led by Delegate Salima Siler Marriott, chairman of Baltimore’s delegation, and Maryland Democratic Party Chairman Terry Lierman have apparently decided that in order to recapture the governorship and remain the dominant party in Maryland, they may need the votes of murderers, robbers and rapists.

With the support of the American Civil Liberties Union, Mr. Lierman and an criminal-rights advocacy group called Justice Maryland, Mrs. Marriott proposes to give all felons the right to vote immediately upon their release from prison. If the legislation passes, it would grant criminals the right to vote in the Sept. 12 primary and the Nov. 7 general election.

Under current Maryland law, nonviolent first-time felons can vote after a three-year waiting period, among other restrictions. But state law prohibits felons twice convicted of violent crimes, such as rape and murder, from voting. Mrs. Marriott’s bill — House Bill 603, which has 37 cosponsors, all Democrats — would end these restrictions. (It needs 71 votes to pass the House.) Doing so is worthwhile because it would “restore some amount of dignity” to the newly freed felons, state Democratic Party Executive Director Derek Walker explained to S.A. Miller of The Washington Times.

Skeptics say that the issue has less to do with “dignity” than it does with cynical political calculations. If the Marriott bill succeeds this year — it died in committee the past three years — an estimated 150,000 felons would be in position to be added to state voter rolls, according to Justice Maryland. Approximately 85,000 are likely Democratic voters, the group estimates. In 2002, Mr. Ehrlich was elected by just 66,170 votes, and this year’s U.S. Senate and gubernatorial elections may be even closer. The effect could prove to be even more pronounced in the most competitive races for the state Senate or House of Delegates, in which candidates are separated by only a few hundred votes.

Contacted yesterday, a spokesman for Mr. Ehrlich told us that while the governor is not inclined to support the Marriott bill, he has not decided whether he will oppose or veto it, should the legislation reach his desk. We urge the governor and the Maryland Republican Party to join opponents by taking a forthright stand against this legislative mischief. The sooner the better.

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