A bill currently on the desk of Maryland Governor Hogan (R) would give ex-offenders in the state the right to vote while still on parole or probation, impacting about 40,000 currently disenfranchised citizens. If signed into law, the bill would bring Maryland in line with 13 other states and the District of Columbia, where citizens can vote immediately after serving their sentences.
Returned citizens and their allies have been demonstrating in Baltimore this week to push the Governor to sign the bill, but he has not yet announced whether he will do so. The bill’s author, freshman Delegate Cory McCray (D-Baltimore), told ThinkProgress that he’s hopeful, because Hogan has expressed any problems with the bill or a desire to veto it.
“We all know this is the right thing to do,” he said. “But the people have to make our leaders accountable and push them to be great. Abraham Lincoln, FDR, Lyndon Johnson — they all had people pushing them to make the right decisions.”
Over the next few weeks, those in favor of the bill will be writing letters, phone banking, and holding more public demonstrations, emphasize the importance of voting in helping people reintegrate into society after jail or prison.
“When you can’t vote, you don’t have a seat at the table,” said McCray, whose Baltimore district has one of the highest ex-offender populations in the state. “Obviously, they’ve made mistakes, but these are our family members, our friends, our neighbors. These folks pay taxes. You can’t leave 40,000 people out of the conversation on subject matters that directly and indirectly impact them, like criminal justice reform, housing, access to fresh foods, employment and transportation.”
Only a handful of Republicans in the state legislature supported the bill, and some are petitioning Governor Hogan to veto it. But McCray hopes his colleagues and the Governor will be moved by the personal stories of people like Perry Hopkins, who testified before the Ways and Means Committee in March.
“In 2008, we witnessed one of the greatest moments in our county, a moment we will all be able to share with our kids,” said McCray, referring to the election of the US’ first African American president. “Hopkins was on parole at the time, and said how painful it is to think about what can he tell his grandchildren when they ask, ‘What were you doing when Barack Obama was elected?’ After his testimony, there were tears in a lot of people’s eyes.”
Nationally, nearly 6 million Americans are disenfranchised because of a felony conviction. Before leaving office, Attorney General Eric Holder railed against laws that disenfranchise ex-offenders, calling them a racist holdover from the Reconstruction Era and a contributing factor to high recidivism that states should quickly abolish.
Across the country, some states are moving in that direction. In late April, the Minnesota Senate passed a bill to restore the voting rights of approximately 47,000 people on probation and parole. The House has yet to take it up.
In Florida, advocates and lawmakers are both trying to pass such a bill in the legislature and gathering signatures to put the issue to voters on the ballot in 2016.
In March, Democrats in Congress introduced a bill to allow all ex-offenders to vote in federal elections. Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), the main sponsor in the House, compared current laws disenfranchising people with criminal records to “poll taxes and literacy tests [that] prevented an entire class of citizens, namely African Americans, from integrating into society after centuries of slavery.”
Despite his silence this week on the voting restoration bill, Governor Hogan did sign into law several bills related to criminal justice reform. The bills include measures to create special Baltimore City and County Police units trained to deal with people with mental illnesses, expand the scope of the Civilian Review Board, increase disclosure about those — like Freddie Gray — who die in police custody, and the Second Chance Act, which will allow some non-violent offenders to expunge their criminal records.
If Hogan doesn’t sign the voting rights bill by May 30, but doesn’t veto it either, it will automatically become law.
Over the weekend, Governor Hogan vetoed the bill, saying that people on parole and probation are “still serving their time as a debt to society for their actions” and thus should not have the right to vote. Hogan added that current laws, which restore voting rights for ex-felons after they complete all supervision, strikes “the proper balance between the repayment of obligations to society for a felony conviction and the restoration of the various restricted rights.”