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A missed opportunity on voting rights

There's been political progress on restoring voting rights for ex-felons. It made last week's developments in Maryland, however, disappointing.
Voting booths are illuminated by sunlight as voters cast their ballots at a polling place on Nov. 6, 2012. (Photo by Jae C. Hong/AP)
Voting booths are illuminated by sunlight as voters cast their ballots at a polling place on Nov. 6, 2012.
Hillary Clinton told a group of Iowans that she "totally disagrees" with the idea of permanently stripping ex-felons of their voting rights. "I think if you've done your time, so to speak, and you've made your commitment to go forward you should be able to vote and you should be able to be judged on the same basis. You ought to get a second chance."
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) chided Clinton's position, insisting he'd endorsed the policy first, which turned out to be completely wrong. (Clinton sponsored legislation on this in 2005, when Paul was still creating a self-accreditation body for his ophthalmology practice.)
But the fact that there would even be a dispute over who endorsed the idea first is itself evidence of progress -- it suggested the proposal had reached a level of mainstream credibility. Alas, as msnbc's Zack Roth reported, the progress was less evident in Maryland.

Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland vetoed a bill Friday that would have restored voting rights to around 40,000 former felons. [...] Currently, over 63,000 Marylanders are disenfranchised because of past felonies, according to numbers compiled by The Sentencing Project. Around 65% of them are African-American.

The details, of course, matter. Maryland already helps restore voting rights for ex-felons eventually, but they're required to complete parole and a probationary period. Newly passed state legislation intended to expedite the process and restore voting rights faster -- once an otherwise eligible Maryland resident has completed his or her sentence, he or she would once again immediately be eligible to participate in elections.
According to Maryland's new Republican governor, that's too quick.
It was a setback for the larger effort, but the fact that the debate is still pushing ahead is heartening. As msnbc's Ari Melber reported back in November 2013, there's often an "invisible barrier to voting that is upending elections around the country." He was referring to more than 5 million Americans who are prohibited from voting because they have criminal records. In all, 48 out of 50 states impose some kind of restrictions on convict voting, and more than half bar former convicts from voting even after they are released from prison.
Efforts to address the problem are becoming more common. Virginia, for example, is home to some of the most punitive policies in the nation, disenfranchising roughly 350,000 adult citizens -- including a fifth of the state's black population. Last year, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) shrank the delay for ex-felons to seek reinstatement of their voting rights.
With Clinton and Rand Paul endorsing changes from the presidential campaign trail, it's likely to remain a national issue, at least for a while.