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Unlock the Vote

Victory Bittersweet for Backers of Bill to Restore Ex-Felons' Voting Rights

By Afefe Tyehimba | Posted 4/10/2002

Activists who have campaigned in Annapolis for three years now to restore voting rights to two-time felons who have done their time experienced a new sensation this year: the thrill of victory. After numerous hearings and a contentious debate among legislators, Senate Bill 184, which overturns the state law that bars such ex-offenders from the ballot box, was passed by the General Assembly, and Gov. Parris Glendening has said he'll sign it into law.

But backers aren't uncorking the champagne just yet. Instead, they're planning a follow-up campaign to debunk what they contend are misreadings of the bill that led legislators to weaken the measure, and to derail an anticipated (if as yet unannounced) drive to put the law on the ballot as a referendum this fall.

"We understand threats are being made by certain members of the Republican Party to develop a petition drive to put this on the [November] ballot," says Marvin "Doc" Cheatham, founder of the Maryland Voting Rights Restoration Coalition, a consortium of politicos and activist groups that pushed the bill. (Cheatham is also the head of the city elections board; he says his work with the coalition is voluntary and unrelated to his city position.) Cheatham won't name those he contends are working to upend the new law, but says opponents "are playing up on people's fears that 10 million killers are going to come back out [of jail] and start voting."

The bill passed 26-20 in a March 29 Senate vote, with most of the chamber's Republicans and a handful of Democrats voting no, some evoking images of convicted child molesters and drug dealers lining up at the polls. Eastern Shore Republican J. Lowell Stoltzfus, the Senate minority leader, told The Sun he believed it would be "difficult for some citizens to say it is all right for a sexual predator to vote." (Stoltzfus did not return calls seeking comment for this story.)

Current state law bars anyone convicted of two felonies from ever voting in Maryland. As originally introduced by state Sen. Delores Kelley (D-Baltimore City/County), SB 184 offered a blanket removal of the ban. However, the bill adopted March 29 included amendments to maintain the lifetime voting ban for anyone convicted of two violent crimes and to require those eligible for reinstatement to wait three years after completing their sentences (including probation and community service) before they can register to vote. In addition, the effective date of the law was pushed back from Oct. 1--in time for ex-offenders to cast votes in this year's state election--to Jan. 1, 2003.

In response to the tougher terms, advocates say their next step is to educate the public and push for future reforms. "The main thing we must remember is that many of the vanquished have been restored to citizenship," says City Council member Kwame Abayomi (D-6th District). "And we have to go ahead and register as many ex-offenders as are eligible so that [next legislative session] we can go back to the legislature" in hopes of removing the restrictions enacted this year.

Cheatham says his group will also work with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to develop brochures and a voter-education package designed to help the public understand the new law won't open the floodgates for "killers who won't participate in the [voting] process anyway because [most of them] will remain in jail--and we want to educate ex-felons to make sure they understand the [registration] requirements."

Supporters estimate that about 12,000 Baltimoreans, most of them African-American men, are ineligible to vote under the current law.

Hassan Allen-Giordano of the substance-abuse-recovery program I Can't We Can, a member of the Voting Rights Restoration Coalition who organized lobbying treks to Annapolis in support of SB 184, says he's gotten "lots of feedback about why the law didn't pass like we wanted it to and why you've still got to wait three years to register. I tell people, all our efforts took us to where we are today, and this law gives us a foundation so we can go back to [the legislature] and build on it."

Before they go back to the legislature, Allen-Giordano says, he and other coalition members will be hitting the streets to build more public support. "We will be going out to every avenue and boulevard in Baltimore City to talk, especially to youth, about their voting rights, and to let them know it's not about whether [the new law] makes the glass half-empty or half-full. It's definitely half-full."

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