AUGUSTA — The family members of two murder victims called on state lawmakers Monday to allow an amendment to the state constitution that would take away the voting rights of those serving prison sentences for some of the most severe crimes under Maine law.
But civil liberties advocates and Secretary of State Matt Dunlap warned lawmakers that removing voting rights from prisoners convicted of Class A crimes under Maine law could undermine prisoner rehabilitation and create an administrative burden for election officials.
Maine is one of two states — Vermont is the other — that allow convicted felons to vote while incarcerated. Some states also bar felons from voting after they’ve served their prison sentences. A bill sponsored by Rep. Gary Knight, R-Livermore Falls, proposes a constitutional amendment that would take those rights away from inmates serving sentences for Class A crimes, which include murder, gross sexual assault and aggravated drug trafficking.
Maine law allows up to 30 years in prison and $50,000 in fines for such offenses.
“The person who took away her life and all of her rights retains the right to vote,” Tim Mills of Wayne, whose 19-year-old daughter Aleigh was killed in 2007, told members of the Legislature’s Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee. “It is reprehensible, heinous and unjust.”
“I believe this to be an embarrassment to the citizens of Maine,” Knight told committee members. “We are an outlier.”
Prisoners have given up their constitutional rights to peaceably assemble and to bear arms, Knight said, before asking why should they retain their constitutional right to vote.
“Our laws have deemed these people dangerous and untrustworthy to remain in society,” said Jackie Dion of Livermore, whose sister-in-law Judy Flagg was stabbed to death in 1983. “If such a crime were committed against your loved one, would you want the perpetrator to maintain the same voting privileges as you?”
If Knight’s bill, LD 573, is passed by two-thirds of lawmakers in the House and Senate, the measure would put the question on restricting Class A felons’ voting rights before voters in a referendum. A majority of voters would to have to approve in order for it to become a constitutional amendment.
Proposals to restrict the voting rights of those in prison have come before state lawmakers at least six times since 1999, according to the ACLU of Maine, and none has been successful. Knight’s measure this year has nine co-sponsors: four Democrats, four Republicans and an independent who caucuses with House Democrats.
During a news conference before Monday’s legislative hearing, opponents of Knight’s bill worried that restricting the voting rights of one class of felons could lead to more widespread voting restrictions. Plus, the opponents said, restricting the voting rights of those in prison serves no purpose in rehabilitating convicted criminals and helping them reintegrate into society once they’re released.
“One of the goals of incarceration is rehabilitation,” said Bob Talbot of the Greater Bangor NAACP. “Voting is an important tool in that rehabilitation and reintegration process. Voting is one way in which people become and continue to be stakeholders in their community.
“Removal of constitutional rights should not be seen as appropriate punishment,” he said.
Dunlap, Maine’s secretary of state, called the bill “a solution in search of a problem” and said that prohibiting one class of prisoners from voting could easily lead to further restrictions on voting rights.
“One of the questions the Legislature ought to be asking is, ‘What problem are we solving by doing this?’” he said. “I don’t think that this is really bringing a very clear resolution to any issue around elections or any issue around corrections.”
Plus, Dunlap said, restricting the voting rights of some prisoners can complicate matters for election administrators, especially since those in prison who haven’t committed Class A crimes would retain the right to vote.
“How do you sort out within a prison population who’s eligible and who’s not?” he said. “It gets balled up pretty quickly, which then lends to the obvious solution: you expand the prohibition.”