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By Ian Simpson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Baltimore community organizer Perry Hopkins, 55, is looking forward to stepping into a voting booth for the first time in his life this election season.
Hopkins lost his never-exercised right to vote when he was convicted for drug and other offenses. He gained it back last month when Maryland joined a growing list of U.S. states making it easier for ex-convicts to vote.
"To have the right to vote now is empowering. I'm stoked," said Hopkins, who spent a total of 19 years in prison for non-violent crimes, and was one of 40,000 in the state to regain his right to vote from a legislative action.
"I plan to vote in every election possible. I'm voting for mayor, I'm voting for city councilman in my district, and, yes, I'm voting for president," said Hopkins. He hopes to vote for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the front-runner in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, on Nov. 8.
Hopkins is among some 800,000 Americans who have regained the right to vote in the last two decades as about two dozen states have eased restrictions on felons casting ballots, according to the Sentencing Project, a prison reform advocacy group.
The restoration of voting rights has drawn support from both Democrats and Republicans as a way to improve prisoners' reintegration into society.
"The trend is to reconsidering policies and scaling back (restrictions). There are setbacks on the way, but the trend is in that direction," said Mark Mauer, the Sentencing Project's executive director.
Advocates contend it is also a way of promoting racial justice, as African-Americans are convicted of crimes and sent to prison at about twice the rate of the overall U.S. population.
Of the 5.8 million Americans banned from voting, 2.2 million are African-American, according to the group. In three states - Virginia, Florida and Kentucky - more than a fifth of black residents outside of prison are barred from casting a ballot. About 13 percent of the U.S. population is African-American.
Wyoming's Republican-controlled legislature last year restored voting rights to felons convicted of non-violent crimes.
A lawsuit before the Iowa Supreme Court aims to strike down the state's voting restriction. Iowa, along with Kentucky and Florida, have the country's harshest rules, prohibiting all ex-felons from voting unless they secure an exemption from the governor.
In Kentucky, outgoing Democratic Governor Steve Beshear signed an executive order in November granting the vote to non-violent offenders who had finished their sentences, including parole.
His successor, Republican Matt Bevin, rolled back the order, saying Beshear had acted without approval of the legislature.
At least 60,000 California inmates had voting rights extended to them in August when state officials dropped their challenge to a court ruling that allowed newly released felons to cast ballots.
"We're seeing more of these proposals. I do think that change takes time, it's an issue that we've seen people come around to," said Tomas Lopez, a counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice in New York, who tracks felon disenfranchisement.
While the initiatives have seen bipartisan support in some states, that breaks down on the presidential campaign trail.
Among Democrats, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont has a plank in his platform calling for the restoration of voting rights to ex-inmates. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has called on the campaign trail for felons to get rights back.
None of the three Republican candidates - real estate magnate Donald Trump, U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas and Ohio Governor John Kasich - mention felons' voting rights in their platforms.
PATCHWORK OF LAWS
The United States has a patchwork of state laws governing felons' voting rights, many dating from the 19th century. They range from two states - Maine and Vermont - that allow prison inmates to vote, to the lifetime bans.
Re-enfranchising felons has drawn uncommon political bedfellows, with the liberal American Civil Liberties Union aligned with Mark Holden, the general counsel for Koch Industries, the conglomerate controlled by conservative political donors Charles and David Koch.
Efforts are also under way in Congress, often the scene of bitter partisan divide, to address the issue. Senator Rand Paul, a Kentucky Republican, has sponsored a bill that would restore voting rights in federal elections to ex-felons without violent offenses. Democrat Harry Reid of Nevada, the Senate minority leader, is co-sponsor.
The American Correctional Association, the Police Executive Research Forum and the American Probation and Parole Association also have backed the trend as potentially helping to reduce crime. A 2011 study by the Florida parole board showed that ex-offenders who were able to vote were one-third as likely to end up back in prison.
"To continue to place a scarlet letter on an individual as if they had a life sentence is just wrong," said Veronica Cunningham, the parole association's executive director.
(This version of the story corrects the last name of counsel to Lopez instead of Perez in paragraph 15)
(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Scott Malone and Frances Kerry)