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February 15, 2006

Maryland considers letting felons vote

When Parris Glendening (D) beat Ellen Sauerbrey (R) for governor of Maryland in 1994 by fewer than 7000 votes, there was a strong whiff of voter fraud. Sauerbrey sued and lost, but many were left thinking that she wasn't wrong but simply had failed to prove her case.

In 2002, Bob Ehrlich (R) beat Kathleen Kennedy Townsend (D) by 66,000 votes, more than what might be called the "margin of fraud." So now, the Democrats are trying to push legislation to re-enfranchise felons, the natural Democratic Party constituency. Gov. Ehrlich has threatened a veto.

Let's start with the politics, spelled out nicely in a Washington Times editorial:

Maryland Democrats these days have a serious political problem called political competition. Four years ago, voters elected a Republican governor for the first time since 1966, and Republican Lt. Gov. Michael Steele this year has a fighting chance to win the seat held for three decades by Democratic Sen. Paul Sarbanes. So the Democrats, led by Delegate Salima Siler Marriott, chairman of Baltimore's delegation, and Maryland Democratic Party Chairman Terry Lierman have apparently decided that in order to recapture the governorship and remain the dominant party in Maryland, they may need the votes of murderers, robbers and rapists.

With the support of the American Civil Liberties Union, Mr. Lierman and an criminal-rights advocacy group called Justice Maryland, Mrs. Marriott proposes to give all felons the right to vote immediately upon their release from prison. If the legislation passes, it would grant criminals the right to vote in the Sept. 12 primary and the Nov. 7 general election.

Under current Maryland law, nonviolent first-time felons can vote after a three-year waiting period, among other restrictions. But state law prohibits felons twice convicted of violent crimes, such as rape and murder, from voting. Mrs. Marriott's bill -- House Bill 603, which has 37 cosponsors, all Democrats -- would end these restrictions. (It needs 71 votes to pass the House.) Doing so is worthwhile because it would "restore some amount of dignity" to the newly freed felons, state Democratic Party Executive Director Derek Walker explained to S.A. Miller of The Washington Times.

Skeptics say that the issue has less to do with "dignity" than it does with cynical political calculations. If the Marriott bill succeeds this year -- it died in committee the past three years -- an estimated 150,000 felons would be in position to be added to state voter rolls, according to Justice Maryland. Approximately 85,000 are likely Democratic voters, the group estimates. In 2002, Mr. Ehrlich was elected by just 66,170 votes, and this year's U.S. Senate and gubernatorial elections may be even closer. The effect could prove to be even more pronounced in the most competitive races for the state Senate or House of Delegates, in which candidates are separated by only a few hundred votes.
And you just knew that someone would play the race card. From the Times news article:
The bill's lead sponsor -- Delegate Salima Siler Marriott, Baltimore Democrat -- said yesterday that Mr. Ehrlich's position reinforces the racist underpinnings of the state law that denies the vote to felons, of whom about 85,000 are black.

Mrs. Marriott, who is black, said Mr. Ehrlich's sentiment "reflects the thinking" of Carter Glass, a delegate to the Virginia Constitutional Convention of 1901 who said felon disenfranchisement aims to "eliminate the darkie as a political factor."

"We all were raised in a racist society," said Mrs. Marriott, stressing that she was not calling Mr. Ehrlich a racist. "Let us be clear about what were the intentions of these laws."

Mr. Ehrlich said he would not "indulge her" by responding to her comments.

"There are white felons. Every issue isn't a racial issue around here," said the governor, who is seeking re-election.
The claim that felon disenfranchisement laws intentionally discriminate is nonsense, as I discussed in October 2004.

But what's bizarre about the claim is that it logically depends on the idea that felons are disproportionately black. Why would race hustlers want us to think about that, number one? And number two, why would they think this would help their cause with the general public?