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Former felons rally for right to vote

Rachel Baye

Criminal justice activists and former felons rallied on the steps of the Statehouse Thursday in an effort to convince lawmakers to give released felons the right to vote immediately upon their release.

Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed the bill last spring. In a letter to lawmakers at the time, he pointed to the state’s existing law, which gives ex-offenders the right to vote once they’ve completed their parole or probation. Until that point, felons are still repaying their debt to society, he said.

"There are a number of rights that felons who are still serving their sentence aren't entitled to, including things like buying guns, professional licenses, serving on a jury and the right to vote," said Hogan spokesman Matt Clarke. "We're selecting one right to restore, and not necessarily addressing the others."

The protesters said they want lawmakers to overturn the governor's veto when they take up the bill, which is scheduled to occur as early as Wednesday.

The group used a familiar phrase to describe being denied the right to vote:  Taxation without representation.

“This country was founded on this principle. Taxation with representation," said Perry Hopkins, a field organizer with the group Communities United. "You'll take my taxes but you won't accept my vote?"

The 54-year-old ex-offender said he has never voted.

Speaking at an event earlier this week, House Speaker Michael Busch said restoring felons’ right to vote helps keep people from becoming repeat offenders.

Several studies seem to back this up. They show a correlation between giving felons the right to vote and reduced rates of recidivism.

But that’s an argument that the governor’s office says has not been made so far. 

“If folks are talking about public safety, this would be the first time this has been made part of the discussion," Clarke said.

Public safety aside, Baltimore City Del. Cory McCray, one of the bill’s sponsors, said Hogan’s veto disenfranchised more than 40,000 Marylanders, disproportionately affecting minority voters. And the margins of victory are often small.

“My election was decided by three votes. In west Baltimore County, an election was decided by less than 56 votes. Southern Maryland, less than 76 votes," he said. "How are we leaving 43,000 people out of the conversation?”

Etta Myers, another former felon who spoke Thursday, said the right to vote would give her the ability to advocate for herself.

"I was locked up for 40 years, and I've never voted," she said. "For us to make any kind of difference in the way we live, from employment to housing to helping seniors with Medicare, things of that nature, the right to vote would mean everything."

Myers said she hopes to vote for the first time in April's primary election.

But that may not be possible for many former felons. Even if the legislature overrides Hogan’s veto before the end of the session, there would be 30 days before the new law would allow ex-offenders to register.

Busch said he expects to have the necessary votes to overturn the veto in the House. However, Senate President Mike Miller was less certain.

“If the veto is not overridden it's going to be the first order of business this session, within two weeks, to introduce a bill to modify changes, eliminating some of the objections that members find with the bill," Miller said.

The legislature needs support from two thirds of its members to override the veto.