BALTIMORE, MARYLAND — Gunning the engine of a hulking white van, Perry Hopkins twisted in his seat and smiled at the rows of Baltimore residents seated behind him. “Are you ready?” he called out. “Let’s go make history.”
All day Thursday, the last day of Maryland’s early voting period, Hopkins shuttled Baltimore residents who, like him, had been disenfranchised for decades due to felony convictions. He offered free rides to the polling location from the West Baltimore corner that was the epicenter of major protests after police killed 25-year-old Freddie Gray last year.
“This is a dream come true,” Hopkins told ThinkProgress as he navigated the van over a series of potholes. He periodically leaned out the window and shouted to people on the street: “Did you vote yet? Go vote!”
Last year, Maryland’s legislature passed a bill to restore the voting rights of more than 40,000 people who have completed felony sentences but remain on parole or probation, roughly half of whom live in Baltimore. Republican Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed the bill, but the legislature mustered the votes this February to override him and implement the change.
It feels good that I have a voice, I have a say in who may be sitting in office.
In the months since, local organizations like Communities United have fanned out across Baltimore and the rest of Maryland to register thousands of these newly-enfranchised citizens and make sure they vote in the state’s April 26 primary.
“We came home, we pay taxes, we work, but we never had a voice,” Hopkins said. “We’re being legally discriminated against, but it’s time to end that. We’re going to become a respected group that the elected officials are going to listen to.”
Hopkins, who for decades battled a crack cocaine and heroin addiction that left him with non-violent felonies on his record, has worked over the last few years to pass the law restoring ex-felon voting rights. Since the law changed in February, he has registered more than 1,000 of his neighbors. Hopkins said the pain he felt from being disenfranchised motivated him to reach out to others in his same situation.
“When Obama was elected, I was sitting on the steps of a carryout, right up the street there,” he said, pointing out the van’s window. “Everyone was running around in the streets yelling, ‘We got a black president!’ I was so happy until a guy looked at me and asked me if I had voted. When I said I didn’t because I had a record he said, ‘Then you have nothing to do with this. You can’t claim this.’ That really hit me.”
When Hopkins pulled the van up to an early voting site in the Ridgely’s Delight neighborhood, 53-year-old Reggie Smith was one of the first to scramble out. Using a cane to steady his arthritic legs, he made his way into the community center and sat down with a poll worker at a handicapped-accessible voting machine. After casting a ballot for the first time since he went to prison in 1999, he emerged triumphant.
“Oh my. That feels good,” Smith said, grinning from under his thick sunglasses and baseball cap. “It feels good that I have a voice, I have a say in who may be sitting in office. I ain’t had no say in nothing. I was always told, ‘You’re locked up, you don’t have a say, you don’t have a voice.’”
If everybody gets together and comes out to vote, we can take this election over.
Smith served a 14-year sentence for attempted murder, and is currently on probation. Because of his conviction and failing health, he’s been unable to find a job since he was released in 2012 and said he feels “non-existent” and “like a zombie” in his own community.
“Having the right to vote again gives me a personal part in the community, which they took from me,” he said.
‘It Hurts Me In Society’
Minutes later, former felon and Communities United volunteer Trina Ashley cast her vote for the first time in decades. “It’s a long time coming,” she told the room as poll workers cheered for her. “It feels so good, and it will count.”
From the sidewalk outside the polls, she immediately called her daughter to share her excitement.
“This election means more to me because of the simple fact that it’s the first year anniversary of Freddie Gray’s death,” she said, explaining that her children were friends with Gray and were present when he was taken into police custody. “Voting means more to me as a law-abiding citizen. I can consider myself a citizen again.”
Participating in the election is especially important to Ashley, a former nurse, who said she has struggled to find her place in her Baltimore community because of the marijuana possession charge on her record.
“Not only for voting, but it hurts me in society,” she said. “I can’t even get a desk job because I’m an ex-felon.”
While it no longer means a loss of voting rights, having a felony conviction makes life significantly harder for Baltimore residents like Ashley. Baltimore has banned the box — meaning employers cannot ask job applicants for their criminal records — but it still remains difficult for former felons to find employment and reintegrate into the community they left behind. In Baltimore, ex-felons are disqualified from public housing for three years upon their release from jail, and Maryland only allows felons to apply for government programs like food stamps if they have met certain rehabilitation requirements.
Until the state restored their voting rights this year, Ashley and others had no way to try to change a system that continues to oppress them. After voting on Thursday, she said she was excited to finally have a say in the city’s housing, education, and employment policies.
“It felt awesome,” she said, adding that she voted for all female candidates. “It felt like I have all the power now.”
‘An Excuse To Suppress Blacks’
Four states still permanently disenfranchise voters with felony convictions, and 30 others ban them from casting a ballot for some period of time after their incarceration.
Nationally, these laws bar nearly 6 million Americans with felony convictions from voting. Before leaving office, Attorney General Eric Holder railed against the policies, calling them a racist holdover from the Reconstruction Era that states should quickly abolish.
After the Civil War, some former Confederate states implemented felon disenfranchisement laws for the explicit purpose of preventing newly-freed black residents from gaining political power. Some Baltimore voters, including Smith, said they feel it serves the same purpose today.
“It is an excuse to suppress the blacks from achieving,” he said.
As data emerges showing that restoring voting rights helps prevent people from re-offending, Maryland and states across the country are grappling with whether a criminal record should bar someone from voting, and if so, for how long.
In Florida, where felon disenfranchisement laws impact nearly 2 million people, residents are pushing for a ballot measure to restore the voting rights of most non-violent offenders. In Virginia, Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) just announced that he will be automatically restoring rights to more than 200,000 ex-offenders. And in Iowa, permanently disenfranchised residents are currently suing the state to regain the right to vote. A ruling is expected before the end of June.
But some states are moving in the opposite direction. In Kentucky, newly-elected Republican Gov. Matt Bevin signed an executive order stripping voting rights from 140,000 former felons who had just regained them.
Last year, 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.”
‘We Could Swing This Election’
In Baltimore, the estimated 20,000 ex-offenders who recently regained their voting rights could have a major impact on the city’s mayoral contest, which includes more than a dozen candidates vying for the office. Baltimore has already seen record early voting turnout. And last week, Communities United held a forum to allow the candidates to reach out to the new population of Baltimore voters.
While Trina Ashley told ThinkProgress she was not pleased with any of the candidates’ responses, she said she still hopes ex-offenders’ voting strength will force the mayoral hopefuls to focus on their needs.
“There’s still more work to be done in housing and in the community,” she said. “That’s why I’m really, really pushing for people to actually come out and vote and voice their opinions. If everybody gets together and comes out to vote, we can take this election over.”
“We could swing this election,” Perry Hopkins agreed. “We’ve got enough votes that they can’t ignore us.”
After voting for the first time in his life, one former felon plastered the iconic “I Voted” sticker in the middle of his chest as strangers waiting in line clapped him on the back and called out their congratulations. He pulled out his cell phone and filmed himself telling his friends, “Just voted, y’all!”
Reggie Smith was equally excited, saying he had a “feeling of accomplishment.” But as he exited the polls, he laughed and turned down the offer of a sticker, saying he wouldn’t put “that thing” on his shirt.
“My thing is, doing it,” he said. “OK, I did it.”
As Smith and the newly-enfranchised voters exited the polls, John Comer, a Baltimore native and co-director of Communities United, directed them back toward the van.
Comer said he’s been working with the organization for four years because he knows how felony convictions can cripple people’s lives — his own brother was disenfranchised for many years because of his record. He told ThinkProgress that voting is “just a basic right” that shouldn’t be infringed.
“Voter suppression is real and that it’s time to begin to break the chains.”