ANNAPOLIS, Md. (AP) — The Maryland General Assembly on Tuesday overrode Republican Gov. Larry Hogan's veto of a bill with the help of a lawmaker who was allowed to vote twice: once as a member of the House and again as a senator.
The vote on the bill to restore voting rights to felons before they finish parole or probation happened with the tightest of margins amid debate about whether it was proper for one lawmaker to vote twice.
The vote, which became snagged in some confusion Tuesday before it was finally passed, already had been delayed for weeks because the Senate was one vote short of the three-fifths majority needed to pass it after a vacancy was created by a retiring senator. Hogan appointed Del. Craig Zucker, a Democrat first chosen by Democratic officials, to fill the Senate seat. As a member of the House, Zucker already had voted in favor of overriding the veto.
The Senate voted 29-18 on two similar bills: One includes Zucker's vote as both a member of the Senate and the House, and is the one that makes the veto override official because it had already been approved by the other chamber. The second bill contains Zucker's vote only as a senator. This bill still needs to be approved by the House for the override to be official.
Republicans say the distinction between the two bills matters, because they have questioned the constitutionality of one lawmaker voting twice on the same veto override.
Sandra Brantley, counsel to the Democratic-led General Assembly, wrote last week that she believes the vote is fine, because each chamber can judge the qualifications of its members. She did note a potential counterargument in her letter of advice: that allowing a legislator to vote twice violates a requirement for the two houses to be "distinct."
The "more reasonable and persuasive view," however, is that a senator appointed to fill a vacancy may vote as the qualified senator, Brantley wrote. "I can find no authority in Maryland law or elsewhere that precludes the senator from voting under these circumstances."
But Sen. J.B. Jennings, the Senate minority leader who asked for the opinion, said the matter could end up being challenged in court. Jennings said the confusion and trouble that swirled around Tuesday's vote only underscored his belief that the override of the measure shouldn't have passed.
"It just showed that this was the wrong thing to do," Jennings said.
All 29 votes in favor of the bill came from Democrats, while four Democrats opposed it. All 14 Republicans voted against overriding the bill.
Opponents say felons haven't yet paid their debt to society.
"Today, 29 people in the Maryland Senate decided to ignore reason and common sense and support an action that the vast majority of Marylanders vehemently oppose," said Doug Mayer, a spokesman for the governor. "For too long, voters have been completely ignored by their elected representatives in Annapolis. It happened again today and our citizens deserve better."
But supporters say it's an important measure to help reintegrate felons into society at a time when lawmakers hope to reduce recidivism and control corrections spending.
"Just because you have the right to vote does not eliminate your responsibility to pay your debt to society," said Sen. Nathaniel McFadden, D-Baltimore. "You still have to fulfill all of that, so I just don't understand that portion of the argument."