The Maryland Legislature recently passed a law restoring the right to vote to all ex-offenders who have fully completed their sentences and finished parole and probation, with the exception of people convicted of election fraud. And in Florida, Gov. Charlie Crist and his Cabinet took the first steps toward ending the civil rights crisis in that state by proposing new rules to restore the civil rights (including the right to vote) for ex-offenders.
These are important developments that deserve support, but the effort is far from over. The Maryland bill still awaits Gov. Martin O'Malley's signature, the complexity of the new Florida rules are cause for concern and millions of Americans in other states who have paid their debt to society are still excluded from participating in the most fundamental exercise of any democracy - the right to vote.
In Maryland, where I have lived since 1971, an estimated 50,000 citizens, despite the fact that they have completed their criminal sentences and are responsible, law-abiding taxpayers in their communities, still cannot vote. If signed into law, the Maryland Voter Registration Protection Act would change the state's outdated rules that bar even people who commit misdemeanors, which are less serious crimes, from voting. In fact, Maryland is one of only two states that disenfranchise people for committing those minor crimes even if they never serve a day in jail.
Simply put, it is now time to move Maryland into the mainstream by restoring voting rights to people after they have fully completed their criminal sentences.
In Florida, Crist's desire to change that state's Civil War-era disenfranchisement policies is admirable and long in coming, but the proposed rules still fall short of a truly fair, effective and automatic plan to restore the right to vote.
Along with Kentucky and Virginia, Florida stands alone in permanently disenfranchising ex-offenders for life, even after they have completed all terms and conditions of their sentence and post-incarceration supervision. Its disenfranchisement laws affect nearly 1 million Floridians - that's one out of every 15 men, women and children. In Florida, people with past felony convictions lose not only the basic right to vote, but also the right to run for public office, sit on a jury, hold numerous occupational licenses and in many cases even get a decent-paying job.
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