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Cranston killer tests voting rights laws

Convicted felons in Rhode Island regain their voting rights upon release from prison, as determined by a 2006 referendum amending a clause in the state's constitution that previously required felons to complete parole and probation before regaining the right to vote. But the law has not stopped city officials in Cranston from challenging violent offenders' eligibility. Last week, the Cranston Board of Canvassers unanimously refused an absentee ballot request from a convicted killer legally eligible to vote in the upcoming election. The same board tried to block two other ballot requests from convicted killers in 2010.

All three ballot requests were submitted by committed patients in the Eleanor Slater Hospital, a state mental health facility in Cranston. The two requests in 2010 were eventually approved, but the most recent request from Michael Woodmansee, who pleaded guilty in 1982 to second-degree murder, was still pending approval before he withdrew his request Tuesday.

Woodmansee's release from prison last year - 12 years before his 40-year sentence was slated to end, due to good behavior - was met with widespread surprise and public outcry. Woodmansee confessed to sexually assaulting and murdering five-year-old Jason Foreman in 1975, and he has also been accused of cannibalizing the victim, though these allegations have not been confirmed. Woodmansee's journal was found in a police search of his home but has remained undisclosed to avoid upsetting the victim's family in its explicit detailing of the crime. Investigators did reveal that Foreman's bones had been polished and displayed on the killer's dresser.

Woodmansee voluntarily committed himself to Eleanor Slater upon his release, but passed psychiatric evaluations for civic commitment, proving that he was of sound enough mind to vote.

Two of the canvassing board's three members must sign off on a request for a ballot. All three members refused to approve Woodmansee's request, submitted Oct. 15. If members reject a valid ballot request, they face legal action for not complying with state law.

Board chairman Joseph DeLorenzo and member Robert Muksian chose to resign from the board rather than sign the request or face charges. Muksian resigned only hours before the Friday afternoon deadline. DeLorenzo opted to skip out on the vote by staying away from city hall and discussing his legal options with attorneys. When the state board of elections caught wind of DeLorenzo's deliberation, he was asked to resign in lieu of facing criminal charges for violating the state constitution.

The two resignations and Woodmansee's subsequent withdrawal of his request have not put an end to the fight to protect felons' right to vote, said Steven Brown, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Rhode Island.

Voting eligibility for felons is more relaxed in Rhode Island than it is in most states. Twelve states revoke voting rights permanently upon incarceration, with some individual exceptions based on the severity of the crime. Nineteen states restore voting following completion of parole and probation, and four require only parole. Rhode Island is among 13 states and Washington, D.C. that allow felons to vote after their release from prison, while Maine and Vermont allow inmates access to absentee ballots at all times.

Brown said the ACLU opposes the board members' exceptions to voting rights according to the severity of the crime, and the group affirms that Woodmansee, a registered Democrat, was "clearly entitled" to an absentee ballot.

"We will be reviewing whether there are any other steps that can or should be taken to prevent this from happening again," he said.


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