Tuesday, February 7, 2006

ANNAPOLIS — Dozens of House Democrats have co-sponsored a bill that would restore voting rights for thousands of felons this election year.

The Maryland Democratic Party has endorsed the measure, which some House Democrats attribute to the party’s aim to oust Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican seeking re-election.

“Of course that’s the reason,” said Delegate Jill P. Carter, Baltimore Democrat and one of the bill’s 37 co-sponsors. “But I am just thankful for whatever reason the party has got behind it.”

“It will make a difference [at the polls] if the Democrat-controlled General Assembly gives [felons] the vote,” said Delegate Salima Siler Marriott, Baltimore Democrat and the bill’s lead sponsor.

Miss Carter said the state Democratic Party has been trying to shore up black votes since Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, a Republican, in 2002 became the first black to win statewide office in Maryland.

The measure would return about 150,000 felons to Maryland’s voting rolls. About 85,000 of them are black and likely Democrats, according to Justice Maryland, a penal reform group that supports voting rights for felons.

Convicted murderers, rapists and armed robbers could vote in the Sept. 12 primary and the Nov. 7 general election if the bill becomes law and takes effect July 1.

The felon vote could decide the election: Mr. Ehrlich won the 2002 governor’s race by 66,170 votes, according to the Maryland State Board of Elections.

His re-election bid is expected to be an even closer contest against either of the Democratic candidates — Baltimore Mayor Martin O’Malley or Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan.

Neither Mr. Ehrlich nor Mr. Steele, who is running for the U.S. Senate, has taken a position on felon voting rights.

Maryland Republican Party spokeswoman Audra Miller said the bill is the latest in a series of moves by Democrats to tilt election law in their favor.

Other changes include Democratic lawmakers last month overturning the governor’s vetoes of bills to allow early voting and expand the use of provisional ballots and absentee ballots on demand — measures a bipartisan commission said risk voter fraud.

“It all speaks to the fact that the Democratic Party is trying to use any and every means possible to fix the elections,” Miss Miller said.

But Derek Walker, executive director of the Maryland Democratic Party, said giving felons the vote upon their release from prison would “restore some amount of dignity” to ex-convicts.

“Once you have paid your dues to society, it is only right that you have the opportunity to participate in our democracy,” Mr. Walker said.

Mrs. Marriott said state Democratic Party Chairman Terry Lierman “reached out” to her to lend his support, including appearing at a press conference last week to announce the bill’s introduction.

She said Mr. Lierman’s support was motivated by his dedication to justice, not by party politics.

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.

State Senate Majority Leader Nathaniel J. McFadden, Baltimore Democrat, has said resistance has softened in his chamber and the legislation “really has a shot.”

Yet House Minority Leader George C. Edwards said he expects the Republican caucus to oppose it, even though the Democratic majority would have enough votes to pass it.

“You break the law, you get penalties,” the Western Maryland Republican said. “That’s one of the penalties.”

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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