ex-cons by restoring voting rights
By Eric C. Olson
and Marvin Cheatham
February 7, 2002
This legislative session,
members of the Maryland General Assembly can correct a glaring
injustice -- that more than 135,000 of its sons and daughters, and
more than one in six African-American males, are not welcome at the
table of democracy because they have a criminal record.
In the last
session, legislation that would have restored the voting rights of
those who served their sentences did not pass, but the effort
resulted in the formation of an official task force to survey the
issue. This year, similar legislation, sponsored by Sen. Delores
Kelley of Baltimore and Del. Kerry Hill of Prince George's County,
both Democrats, is under consideration by lawmakers.
Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee scheduled a
hearing on the bill for today.
Maryland legislators should take
note of a bipartisan group of former lawmakers who considered
election reform last year. Chaired by former Presidents Gerald Ford
and Jimmy Carter, the National Commission on Federal Election Reform
recommended more than a dozen election law changes.
5 calls for each state to allow for restoration of voting rights to
those convicted of a felony once they have fully served their
sentence. Signatories of the report included Mr. Ford and Mr.
Carter, as well as establishment pillars such as Democrats Lloyd
Cutler, Leon Panetta, Bill Richardson and Daniel Patrick Moynihan
and Republicans Robert Michel, Slade Gorton, John Danforth, Rudy
Boschwitz and Maryland GOP Chairman Michael Steele. Maryland
legislators should follow the lead of that group and ensure that all
Marylanders have the right to participate in the democratic process.
In Connecticut last year, Republican Gov. John Rowland signed into
law a bill that restored voting rights to ex-offenders on probation.
According to former Connecticut Secretary of State Miles Rapoport,
this milestone was reached because lawmakers of both parties
understood this as a fundamental democracy issue, not a "soft on
crime" measure. The bill had support from the state's departments of
adult probation and corrections, which seek ways to prevent
Preventing ex-offenders from voting only further
removes the individual and his or her family from civic engagement
and does nothing to help the transition from society's margin toward
the heart of citizenship. In a time when pundits chafe at record-low
levels of voter turnout, one of the best indicators of future voter
participation is whether one's parents voted.
Why then, as
ex-offenders transition to rebuilding their lives and getting on
their feet, are they denied the ability to show their children good
citizenship at the polling place? We hear a lot about "breaking the
cycle," and we hear politicians talk about the need for people to
help themselves. Why not, then, actively encourage ex-offenders to
Canada uses a reasonable approach in which individuals are
registered to vote after they leave prison -- literally and
symbolically welcomed into society with their full democratic
Restoring voting rights to those who have served their
sentences is not, of course, going to magically and immediately
result in legions of new upstanding citizens; long-standing
socioeconomic disparities, a failing penal system, the causes of
drug addiction and other social afflictions need attention for
Restoring ex-offender voting rights
would help individuals and their families -- those who are looking
to participate -- to engage in active citizenship and prove a
commitment to the ideals of civil society.
It is in the interest of
all of us to acknowledge and encourage those who seek the path of
redemption. The very least we can do is restore the ability to
participate in the democratic process. We can ill afford to waste
Eric C. Olson is deputy
director of the Center for Voting and Democracy in Takoma Park.
Marvin Cheatham is founder of the Maryland Voting Rights Restoration