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Restoration of Voting Rights Picks up Steam

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Weekly Voting Rights News Roundup

This an entry in a series of blogs to keep people informed on current election reform and voting rights issues in the news.

Featured Stories of the Week:

Md.’s ex-felons register to vote: New law allows those who served their sentences to cast a ballot – The Baltimore Sun

Judge may hear ACLU voting rights suit by fall, lawyer says – Associated Press, Sun Herald

A growing civil rights trend in several parts of the country is the restoration of voting rights to former felons, a population historically left to be “'just a ghost to democracy'” upon release. This week, two states made contrasting news with one granting voting rights all to ex-felons for the first time and another having its strict state law challenged and possibly heard by a judge this fall.

These actions clear the way for a re-shaping of the electorates in those states to more closely resemble the make-up of the population - a major step forward in any representative democracy. This Project Vote report discusses the impact of felon disenfranchisement laws on minority and low income citizens: “The disenfranchisement rate of African-American men in seven times the national average at 13%,” however, “research has shown that poor and/or non-white persons are more likely to be arrested, charged, convicted, and sentenced to prison than their wealthier, white counterparts.”

On Sunday July 1, a new Maryland law went into effect, allowing “all former felons to vote immediately after they complete their sentences, including any parole or probation for the conviction,” Julie Turkewitz of the Baltimore Sun reported. “The law stands to affect Baltimore the most, according to advocates, because the city is home to the highest concentration of former felons in the state.”

Maryland was one of 12 states to have a permanent disenfranchisement laws, Turkewitz wrote, while noting its part in a “nationwide trend that has expanded voting rights for people with criminal records.”

A similar statement was made by Mississippi ACLU legal director John Williams: “In the states, there's a trend to give felons their voting rights back,” according to Sheila Byrd of the Associated Press. The group filed a lawsuit against the state's disenfranchisement law on behalf of two residents against the offices of the ecretary of tate and ttorney eneral. It may be heard by a judge this fall, Williams said. He hopes the state will take after Maryland and Florida, which recently changed its previous permanent-disenfranchisement law to automatically restore the voting rights of 15,500 ex-felons this year.

The state constitution lists 10 crimes that result in permanent voter disenfranchisement if committed. “Eleven other crimes were added to the list in 2004 based on an ttorney eneral's opinion,” Byrd wrote. “It is the latter group of crimes that the ACLU is challenging.” Attorney General Jim Hood said those additional crimes, including shoplifting, timber larceny and extortion, “'were not intentionally included for racial reasons.'” Most of the added crimes involved larceny, “a term that was not used in the 1896 constitution,” he said.

Currently, about “146,000 convicted felons are disenfranchised under the state's laws.”

'The message is very clear that disenfranchisement laws are a vestige of a past in which efforts were made to limit the franchise of African Americans,'”said Ryan King of the Sentencing Project, a group that “conducts research and advocacy on behalf of convicted felons.”

Quick Links:

The Sentencing Project

Mississippi ACLU

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