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Advocates Rally in Annapolis to Support Restoring Voting Rights of Two-Time Felony Offenders

by Elaine Shen
"If people pay their debt to society," said Del. Robert Zirkin, "they should have the opportunity to get involved in the electoral process."
On the night of March 11, around 150 members of the Maryland Voting Rights Restoration Coalition gathered at Annapolis' Lawyers Mall to support House Bill 535 and Senate Bill 184, which would allow second-time felony offenders to vote.

"We're stuck in the middle," said Israel Cason, president of I Can't We Can, a drug and alcohol rehabilitation program and member of the coalition. "We're not full citizens and we're not doing time. But we can't choose the people who represent us to even get us out of this predicament. Where do we belong?"

Holding yellow signs that said "Taxation without Representation" or "Debt Paid, Restore the Vote," participants listened to speakers such as Senator Delores Kelley, author of Bill 184, and Secretary of State John Willis as they voiced their support outside the State House before a statue of Thurgood Marshall, civil rights lawyer and former Supreme Court Justice.

Willis pointed out discrepancies in state voting right laws. "Why should the citizens of Maryland be treated differently than the citizens of Pennsylvania? Why should they be treated differently than in 38 other states?"

Maryland is one of only 12 states that permanently disenfranchises second-time offenders. In most states, including Texas, individuals can regain their voting rights after they have completed their sentences. Previous attempts to federally mandate the voting rights of ex-felons, such as Michigan Rep. John Conyers' "Civic Participation and Rehabilitation Act," have never passed.

Delegate Robert Zirkin of District 11 observed the Annapolis rally on his way to a committee meeting. "If people pay their debt to society," he commented, "they should have the opportunity to get involved in the electoral process."

Diane Moss' interests in the campaign began when she applied for a voter's card and never received one because of drug convictions. "I was very disappointed. I had been a working citizen for 17 years. I had always paid my taxes on time. I have five children. I never received any money from the state as far as social service."

The Maryland Voting Rights Restoration Coalition, which includes the NAACP, the ACLU and League of Women Voters of Maryland in addition to many other civic organizations, was established to challenge Maryland's current statute, which prohibits those with two or more felony convictions from voting.

Senate Bill 184 and its counterpart, House Bill 535, both await a voting in their respective committees. Last year, the Senate version failed in subcommittee by one vote.

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This story was published on March 14, 2002.