Wednesday, February 15, 2006

ANNAPOLIS — Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. yesterday vowed to veto a bill that would restore voting rights to felons, including the state’s most violent criminals, immediately upon their release from prison.

“I don’t think you reward the franchise to those who commit the most horrific crimes,” Mr. Ehrlich, a Republican, told The Washington Times. “Full restoration of every right is inappropriate.”

Dozens of House Democrats have co-sponsored legislation that would allow about 150,000 murderers, rapists, robbers and other felons to vote this year, and the state Democratic Party has endorsed the bill.

The bill’s lead sponsor — Delegate Salima Siler Marriott, Baltimore Democrat — said yesterday that Mr. Ehrlich’s position reinforces the racist underpinnings of the state law that denies the vote to felons, of whom about 85,000 are black.

Mrs. Marriott, who is black, said Mr. Ehrlich’s sentiment “reflects the thinking” of Carter Glass, a delegate to the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1901 who said felon disenfranchisement aims to “eliminate the darkie as a political factor.”

“We all were raised in a racist society,” said Mrs. Marriott, stressing that she was not calling Mr. Ehrlich a racist. “Let us be clear about what were the intentions of these laws.”

Mr. Ehrlich said he would not “indulge her” by responding to her comments.

“There are white felons. Every issue isn’t a racial issue around here,” said the governor, who is seeking re-election.

Democratic lawmakers have attributed the Marriott bill’s popularity to their party’s aim to oust Mr. Ehrlich and secure black votes after Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, a Republican, in 2002 became the first black to win statewide office in Maryland.

According to Justice Maryland, a penal reform group that supports voting rights for felons, about 60 percent of Maryland felons are black and likely Democrats.

Ex-convicts could decide this year’s election. Mr. Ehrlich won the 2002 gubernatorial race by about 66,000 votes, and the contest this year is expected to be even closer.

Neither of the Democratic gubernatorial candidates — Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley and Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan — has taken a position on immediately restoring felons’ voting rights. Mr. O’Malley has said he favors a waiting period after prison before giving felons the vote.

Mr. Ehrlich said he is convinced that some Democrats are backing the bill for “purely partisan purposes.”

“The vast majority of Marylanders would share my concern with the issue [and] would support my veto,” he said.

The bill, which has more than half the 71 House votes needed for passage, has died in the General Assembly for three consecutive years. However, it appears to have momentum in both chambers this year.

“Once they have paid their debt to society, clearly they should be able to vote,” Senate President Thomas V. Mike Miller Jr., Prince George’s Democrat, said yesterday.

House Speaker Michael E. Busch, Anne Arundel Democrat, said the issue warrants study.

“It’s obvious this [Democratic] leadership is tilting strongly left,” Mr. Ehrlich said. “Maryland is a much more moderate state.”

Sen. Andrew P. Harris, Baltimore County Republican and minority whip, said his caucus overwhelmingly shares the governor’s view.

“Violent offenders give up the [voting] right when they commit a violent crime against another person,” he said.

House Republican leaders also have said that most of the caucus would oppose the bill.

However, the Democratic majority is large enough in both chambers to pass the bill without Republican support.

Maryland is one of 11 states that disenfranchise some felons for life. The others are Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nevada, Tennessee, Virginia and Wyoming.

Virginia Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, restored the voting rights of 3,414 felons on a case-by-case basis — more than any other governor of the 11 states with restrictions.

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