Tuesday, January 24, 2006

ANNAPOLIS — Democratic lawmakers, who have long pushed to restore voting rights to Maryland felons, say racial politics and election-year considerations make this the year they open the polls to every ex-convict.

“This law seriously disenfranchises a large number of African-Americans,” said Delegate Salima Siler Marriott, a black Baltimore Democrat who is gathering sponsors for a voting-rights restoration bill she plans to submit.

“Their disenfranchisement impacts the power of African-Americans in this state,” said Mrs. Marriott, whose bill would give all felons the vote immediately upon release from prison.

If Mrs. Marriott’s bill succeeds this time — it has died in committee the past three years — an estimated 150,000 felons would be able to cast ballots in Maryland. About 85,000 of them are black and likely Democrats, according to Justice Maryland, a penal reform group that supports felon voting rights.

These convicted murderers, rapists and armed robbers could vote as early as the Nov. 7 general election, if the law takes effect on the traditional Oct. 1 start date. And felons could sway the results.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., a Republican, won the 2002 governor’s race by 66,170 votes, according to the Maryland State Board of Elections.

Mr. Ehrlich’s re-election bid this year 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.

“That might be the line used by Democrats as to why they should support the bill,” said Tara Andrews, executive director of Justice Maryland.

Miss Andrews noted that Mr. Ehrlich, whose criminal justice reforms already have won kudos from black leaders such as hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, could attract the felon vote by not vetoing the bill.

“That’s a very real possibility,” she said.

Mr. Ehrlich “is not inclined to support” giving the vote to all felons immediately upon release, but he will reserve judgment until legislation reaches his desk, said Henry P. Fawell, a spokesman for the governor.

However, he said Mr. Ehrlich supports current law that gives nonviolent, first-time felons the vote after a three-year waiting period, among other restrictions.

Mr. Duncan said he has not taken a position because he needs to research the issue, and Mr. O’Malley said he supports giving felons the vote after a “cooling-off period.”

Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, a Republican and the first black elected to statewide office in Maryland, has not taken a position on the issue or Mrs. Marriott’s bill, said Leonardo Alcivar, a spokesman for Mr. Steele’s campaign for U.S. Senate.

“He looks forward to studying the specific legislation,” Mr. Alcivar said. “It is a serious issue.”

State Senate Majority Leader Nathaniel J. McFadden said resistance to the effort has softened in his chamber, which has blocked efforts to bring the measure to a vote.

“It helps because it is an election year,” said Mr. McFadden, a black Baltimore Democrat. “It really has a shot.”

Still, the effort faces steadfast opposition.

Sen. Nancy Jacobs, Harford County Republican and member of the Judicial Proceedings Committee, said she is against the move and thinks there are enough votes in the committee to kill it.

House Minority Leader George C. Edwards said most House Republicans oppose giving felons the vote, but Democrats control both chambers and can force through any bill they choose.

“In this [partisan] atmosphere down here, who knows what will happen?” said Mr. Edwards, Western Maryland Republican.

In 2002, the Democrat-controlled legislature restored voting rights to felons convicted of nonviolent crimes following a three-year waiting period after their release from prison and only after they complete all parole and probation requirements and pay all fines and restitution.

Justice Maryland’s Miss Andrews said the current law is so confusing that as many as 50,000 eligible felons do not vote because they don’t know they can. The blanket restoration of voting rights would return these felons to the polls — for a grand total of about 200,000 felons added to Maryland’s voting rolls, she said.

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. Three states — Florida, Kentucky and Virginia — deny the vote to all felons for life.

Former 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 that restrict voting privileges.

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