BALTIMORE — Before Kimberly Haven set out to register voters this month, she checked Baltimore city records to find a neighborhood with a surprising feature: a large number of felons.
There, on a litter-strewn street corner, her team ran into Lonnell Burke, who was waiting to catch a bus to a local drug rehab center. With cocaine and armed burglary convictions, Burke assumed he was barred from the polls forever. But thanks to a recent change in Maryland law, he found himself signing papers to become a registered voter.
"I didn't think the doors would ever open for ex-offenders to vote," said Burke, 50, who called the unexpected encounter "a blessing."
At least a dozen states have changed their laws since 2003 to allow more felons who are no longer in prison to cast ballots, reversing a long-standing trend.
And though studies show that felons lean Democratic, states led by Republican governors have loosened their voting rules, including Alabama, Nebraska, Nevada and Florida -- where officials have learned from the 2000 presidential race just how close an election can be.
States restored voting rights to about 760,000 felons in the last decade, according to tallies by voting rights groups, but data on how many have registered to cast ballots are sketchy. Whether these voters could tip an election in a presidential swing state is a matter of speculation.
But the new laws have produced aggressive registration drives this election season in the most unconventional of places -- soup kitchens, halfway houses, even Alabama state prisons.
"This is the first time in history that some of these places have ever seen this kind of civic activity," said the Rev. Kenneth Glasgow, who served time in prison. He now heads an Alabama nonprofit faith-based organization and has led efforts to register the state's current and former convicts.
Haven, 47, who is executive director of the group Justice Maryland, helped push the state to loosen its laws last year and now works to educate and register ex-offenders. She completed a prison sentence for white-collar crime in 2001.
The trend of restoring voting rights comes even while some states are adopting voter ID laws and other steps to ensure that only qualified voters cast ballots -- rules that critics say can disenfranchise some voters.
The push has been led largely by black community leaders who say the number of African Americans who remain stripped of their voting rights has become an indefensible civil rights issue. Even with the new laws, about 1 in 8 black men is barred from voting because of criminal convictions, advocacy groups say.
In some states, voting rights activists have been joined by evangelical Christian groups who argue that forgiveness plays an important role in rehabilitating criminals.
"We try to challenge the conservatives," said Pat Nolan, vice president of Prison Fellowship, a conservative Christian justice reform group founded by Charles Colson, the former Nixon administration aide who was convicted of Watergate-related crimes. Nolan is a former state assemblyman from Glendale who served time in federal prison for racketeering. "Why, after someone has paid their debt, do we continue to punish them?"
According to advocacy groups, about 5.3 million Americans, or 1 in 41 adults, have lost their right to vote because of a felony conviction.
"The issue here is really if someone should have a permanent scarlet letter on them -- if there are certain offenses for which there is no redemption," said Democratic Rep. Steve Cohen, who played a lead role in revising Tennessee's voting law in 2006.
The suffrage laws vary by state and often by felony, with violent crimes incurring greater restrictions. Only two states -- Maine and Vermont -- permit voting by all felons, including those still in prison. California, along with states such as New York and Colorado, automatically reinstates voting rights to felons once they are released from prison and are off parole.
In little more than a decade, 18 other states have moved to enable more felons to vote. Three more, however, have gone the other way -- making their laws more restrictive.
"If you are not willing to follow the law, you can't claim a right to make the law," said Roger Clegg, president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank in Falls Church, Va. "Just because you have served your sentence and have earned your right to leave prison doesn't mean that society has to forget about the fact that you have committed a serious crime."
Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a Republican, faced similar criticism from his own party when he pushed the state clemency board last year to restore the voting rights of about 120,000 felons who had finished their time in prison.
Voting against the changes was Florida Atty. Gen. Bill McCollum, a Republican who sits on the board with Crist. He cited the state's high recidivism rates as reason to be cautious.