Activist Ex-Convicts Call For Change:

Maryland's Disenfranchisement of Felons May Be Easing

by Elaine Shen
No other democratic nation in the world disenfranchises as many people as the U.S.

"Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now I'm found, was blind but now I see." A man sings at the podium of Druid Hill's Union Baptist Church as listeners sit with their eyes closed, some pressing their clasped hands to their forehead.

But this was no ordinary gathering of religious faithful. This event was a rally of some 400 ex-felons assembled to call for a change in the Maryland law that disenfranchises those convicted of two or more felonies.

Current state law allows for first-time offenders who have completed their sentences to regain their voting rights. However, after a second felony conviction, an ex-offender cannot ever vote again unless the governor grants a pardon, a process that takes anywhere from 17 to 27 years from the last day of serving a sentence. Effectively, twice-convicted felons permanently lose the right to vote in this state.

"If you have met all conditions of the sentence, you shouldn't wear a scarlet letter for life," says State Senator Delores Kelly, author of Senate Bill 184, which was introduced in mid-January to amend the existing statute. "What we want is for [former offenders] to be vested in the community, to take ownership of public issues, to pay their taxes, to work, to care about making the world better. To tell them all they cannot vote is not the best way to do it."

According to a report issued last year by a Maryland General Assembly task force, about 135,700 people—both incarcerated and released—are denied the right to vote. This figure represents 3.6% of the adult population in Maryland. In some other states that percentage is even higher, cites Jeff Manza and Christopher Uggen in The Truly Disenfranchised, a working paper out of Northwestern University, particularly in Florida or Alabama (about 6%), where one felony offense leads to lifetime disenfranchisement. Maryland and the 12 other states where it is possible to lose the right to vote permanently from felony convictions are in the minority. All other states allow former offenders to vote at some point following the completion of a sentence. Maine and Vermont even allow those still in prison to vote.

This is the fourth time in a row that a bill to re-enfranchise former felony offenders has come to the Maryland legislature. Last year, the bill failed by one vote in a Senate subcommittee.

"Maryland's law is forgiving," maintains Delegate James Rzepkowski. "Our current statute says, you commit a felony now and after you serve your time, you get one chance."

Archie Hill would disagree. Hill is an organizer for the Maryland Voting Rights Restoration Coalition, which was formed to advocate for the voting rights of ex-felons. A former offender himself, Hill was convicted of three felony charges including drug possession. Today, he is a job retention specialist and a mentor for recently released convicts. He was the primary organizer of the rally at Union Baptist Church.

"There's really no limit on what it takes for an individual to change," replies Hill, who advised the youth tier of a Hagerstown prison during his three-year incarceration there. "Redemption doesn't have a time on it."

In response to others' apprehensions over giving voting rights to repeat offenders, Hill counters, "My concern is not about them. My concern is about people who have stood to change their lives."

But for some, any change is too late. Anne McCloskey's brother was murdered in 1981, and she is now chair of the Maryland Coalition Against Crime, a victims' rights organization. "Whether or not he [the murderer of her brother] gets to vote is of little concern to me. My brother will never get a chance to vote again. I don't think criminals need more rights or privileges. I think they give it up when they start committing felonies."

But not all felonies are the same. While felonies are considered the most severe crimes, some are not violent. In Maryland, one can be convicted of a felony for writing a bad check of over $500, or writing two bad checks within a 30-day period. Injuring a race horse, issuing a verbal threat or unlicensed possession of fireworks are also felonies.

Felony disenfranchisement laws have a long history that dates back to colonial times when women and non-landowning males could not vote. Opponents to the Senate bill and similar legislation (like Congressional HR 906 proposed in 1999, which failed in subcommittee) point to the 14th Amendment in the Constitution which allows for the denial of the right to vote, "for participation in rebellion, or other crime."

In fact, the Supreme Court upheld a felony disenfranchisement statute in Richardson v. Ramirez (1974). However, the Supreme Court overruled criminal disenfranchisement laws that reflected "purposeful racial discrimination" in Hunter v. Underwood (1985), where a state law barring those guilty of "moral turpitude" was demonstrated to have had racist intent.

Opponents of disenfranchisement laws say they also violate the Voting Rights Act of 1965, enacted to end literacy tests and other requirements which, although not overtly racist, were established with the intent to discriminate against non-whites.

A report issued by Human Rights Watch and the Sentencing Project, an advocacy group for criminals' rights, points out that no other democratic nation in the world disenfranchises as many people—in both absolute and proportional terms—as the United States. About 4 million Americans have no right to vote because of felony convictions; 1.4 million of that group are African-American males. In Maryland, about half of those who are disenfranchised are African-American males.

Some see the efforts to re-enfranchise ex-felons as a continuation of the civil rights movement. At the Baltimore rally a few days before Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday, many speakers evoked the memory of Dr. King and the struggle in the 1960s to frame the voting rights movement today.

Last year, Hill and a group of former offenders testified before the Senate subcommittee in support of a bill to re-enfranchise ex-felons. Senator Kelly recalls, "I was struck at how many were clergy people, schoolteachers, social workers, drug addiction counselors. They are paying taxes, they are rearing families, they are pillars of society. But because of youthful indiscretions, they cannot vote."

Yet such examples of now upstanding individuals are not enough for all legislators. "I applaud the work they're doing as they reform their lives," counters Delegate Rzepkowski, "but I side with the law-abiding citizen."

Elaine Shen, a Lutherville resident, is a recent graduate of Columbia University.

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This story was published on February 6, 2002.