“It would be transformative if everybody voted,” President Obama told a crowd in Cleveland Wednesday. He even mused about the idea of making voting mandatory. That’s not going to happen any time soon. But in the wake of record low voter turnout in last fall’s midterm elections, a movement is growing in Washington and around the country to dismantle a set of restrictions that keep nearly 6 million Americans from the polls: felon disenfranchisement laws. Many state restrictions on felon voting were imposed in the wake of Reconstruction, as the South looked for ways to suppress black political power. But now, the falling crime rates of the last two decades have prompted a broader reassessment of tough-on-crime policies. Meanwhile, the ongoing Republican-led assault on voting has triggered a backlash that aims to expand, rather than contract, voting rights. On Wednesday, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) and Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.), backed by an array of civil- and voting-rights groups, introduced a bill that would restore voting rights for federal elections to Americans with past criminal convictions upon their release from incarceration. That came on the heels of a similar but more limited bill introduced last month by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) that would apply only to non-violent offenders. Neither measure is likely to get much traction in the Republican-controlled Congress. But in the states, there has been plenty of movement lately.
Two Democrats in the Maryland Legislature want to change the way U.S. Senate vacancies are filled, and Republicans are crying foul. We understand their distress, but the bill sponsored by Sen. Jamie Raskin and Delegate David Moon, both of Montgomery County, is a more democratic and less political method of filling a vacancy should a U.S. senator resign or die before his or her term ends. Current law empowers the governor to appoint a replacement until the next statewide election. That could conceivably mean a full two years in the U.S. Senate for a political appointment, as opposed to someone chosen by voters. But Republicans are understandably irked at the timing of this legislation. If Democrats are so sold on its merits, why was it not introduced during Gov. Martin O’Malley’s eight years at the helm? ”It’s interesting that the first year of a Republican governor, they’re trying to strip powers from him,” state GOP executive director Joe Cluster said in a recent Baltimore Sun story. Both Raskin and Moon argue that the bill will put this power appropriately in the hands of voters.
Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin teamed up with an unlikely political ally on Tuesday — Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky — in pushing for federal legislation to allow millions of Americans with felony convictions to regain their right to vote. Paul, a conservative Republican who many believe is eying a presidential run in 2016, joined Cardin, a Democrat, at a forum on Capitol Hill to call attention to the issue. Despite different political ideologies, the two have introduced similar bills to restore voting rights for felons who have served their sentences. “We’ve had some differences over the years, but we have joined forces in recognizing that there’s an important policy that we can advance in helping people reenter into our society,” Cardin said. “This is one of the Jim Crow laws of our time.” If either measure is approved it would replace a patchwork of state laws that vary widely on when a felon may vote.