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Debate in Augusta: Should Maine Prisoners be Allowed to Vote?
03/04/2013   Reported By: A.J. Higgins

Voting rights activists lined up to oppose a bill today that would prohibit prisoners convicted of the most serious crimes from casting ballots. Maine and Vermont are the only states that allow prisoners to vote in state and national elections. And as A.J. Higgins reports, at least one lawmaker doesn't think murderers and rapists deserve that privilege.

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State Rep. Gary Knight, a Livermore Falls Republican, has tried before to prohibit Maine prisoners from voting while behind bars. He says it's time for Maine join the rest of the country and deny voting rights to prisoners. "I believe this to be an embarrassment to the good citizens of Maine, we are an outlier," Knight told colleagues.

Unlike his previous efforts, this time Knight is taking a more focused approach. Knight told members of the Veterans and Legal Affairs Committee that his bill would authorize a constitutional amendment that, upon super-majority votes in the House and Senate, would put the question out to Maine voters to decide if those convicted of the most serious crimes should be allowed to cast ballots.

Murderers, rapists or anyone charged with a Class A crime and serving a minimum of 10 years in prison would lose their voting rights under the bill.

"By imprisoning certain individuals, the courts recognize that they do not deserve to enjoy the same freedoms that we have outside the prison walls," Knight said. "No one tells us when we're going to eat, sleep, exercise; but those who are incarcerated are told such. They're even restricted as to what they must wear on the bodies for clothing."

Knight says there are plenty of other examples of felons losing rights - not just in prison, but also upon release. Convicted felons in Maine may not possess firearms, he said, adding there are no compelling arguments that link voting behind bars with positive rehabilitation outcomes.

Knight says it is also a conflict to allow prisoners to vote for governors who appoint judges and legislators who write bills affecting criminals.

"It is the people, including Class A felons, who elect the members of the Legislature and the governor," Knight said. "Ironically, those who are incarcerated will probably be voting against this measure. They should not even be voting."

Tim Mills of Wayne also spoke at the public hearing on the bill, saying current state laws that permit murderers to vote are insulting to the memory of his daughter, Aleigh Mills. The 19-year-old was murdered in her home seven years ago by John A. Okie, who is now serving a 60-year sentence.

"Tragically, Aleigh only had the opportunity to vote once," Mills said. "The depraved animal that had no regard for her life and rights brutally ended Aleigh's life just as it was beginning, at age 19. Yet the person who took away her life and all of her rights retains his right to vote."

"It's incredibly difficult and painful and heartbreaking to hear the stories of families of the victims - nothing can compensate for what they have lost," said Shenna Bellows, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine.

Bellows said symphathizes with the loss that victims of crime experience, but she's also convinced that removing prisoner voter rights accomplishes little in the way of punishment. In fact, Bellows says that voting is an essential civil right that actually helps prisoners to re-enter society upon their release by participating in the Democratic process.

Knight's bill does nothing to prevent prisoners from voting once they are free, but NAACP spokesman Bob Talbot of Bangor says the underlying motivation for the bill is disappointing. He says laws affecting prisoner voting rights have historically been racially motivated. And he says Maine stands for something better when it gives inmates the vote.

"Maine should be proud that it has resisted this Jim Crowe legislation for so long," Talbot said. "To adopt it now would be shameful."

A work session on the prisoner voting bill is expected to be held later this month.


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