The suspension, or permanent revocation, of the right to vote is an often overlooked barrier to reentry for formerly incarcerated people. As our nation comes to grips with its mass incarceration epidemic we are reaching a consensus that our criminal justice system is in desperate need of reform. The public has been slow to embrace the idea that formerly incarcerated people should be given full access to one of the hallmarks of citizenship, the right to vote.
According to a 2010 estimate released by The Sentencing Project, nearly 5.85 million people nationwide are currently subject to laws limiting their right to vote due to a felony conviction. Of those 5.85 million, 2.23 million are African American. Indeed, “felony disenfranchisement laws” disproportionately affect African-Americans, who are overrepresented in the criminal justice system.
The trend is worse in Maryland. Of the population that lost their ability to vote due to Maryland’s felony disenfranchisement laws, 65 percent were African American, yet African Americans comprise only 30 percent of Maryland’s population. In other words, Maryland’s disenfranchisement rate of African Americans is 33 percent more than the national rate.
The loss of the right to vote reaches far beyond the ballot box. For example, Jury Offices across Maryland use statewide voter registration lists as a source for finding prospective jurors. When African Americans are underrepresented in the jury selection process, but overrepresented in the criminal justice system, the legitimacy of the criminal justice process is called into question. A jury panel that reflects the diversity of the population is crucial for the fair administration of justice and it instills confidence in the affected citizens.
In February 2016, the Maryland General Assembly (MGA) voted to overturn Governor Larry Hogan’s veto and immediately restore the voting rights of 40,000 citizens who were recently released from prison. The MGA showed support for a democracy inclusive of a community often left out of the democratic process. Yet, the Maryland State Board of Elections (BOE) is the gatekeeper that stands between formerly incarcerated people and full access to ballot box.
The first step toward meaningful participation in Maryland’s democracy is registering to vote. Although the “Maryland rights restoration legislation” became law on March 10, 2016, the BOE has yet to change their procedures to implement the new law. Maryland’s online and print voter registration applications continue to ask applicants to swear that “ I have not been convicted of a felony [or]  I have been convicted of a felony, but I have completed serving-court ordered sentence of imprisonment.”
What purpose do these questions serve? This language implies that a felony conviction is a criterion for eligibility. However, that is not the case. According to the rights restoration law, the right to vote is immediately restored upon completing a court-ordered sentence of imprisonment. In other words, a prior felony conviction should not affect a Marylander’s eligibility to register to vote. Asking an applicant to swear that he or she has not been convicted of a felony is misleading and risks deterring Marylanders who have been convicted of a felony from registering to vote.
Maryland’s failure to fully implement the rights restoration law doesn’t stop at the voter registration application. According to an April Baltimore Sun article, the Baltimore City Board of Elections sent letters to at least 34 formerly incarcerated people informing them that they could not vote because of a felony conviction. The content of those letters was wrong and completely inconsistent with Maryland’s rights restoration legislation. We can only achieve meaningful re-introduction after we remove all unnecessary barriers to re-entry.
Of the 40,000 Marylanders that stand to regain their right to vote, the Sentencing Project estimates that over half are African American. Adding over 20,000 African-American votes back into the Maryland electorate could change the political landscape for African Americans and reprioritize issues affecting African Americans at the state level.
The people of Maryland voted for the lawmakers who boldly opposed the Governor’s veto. Their vote is truly historic and sends a message that Maryland is ready to support a more inclusive democracy. To fulfill this goal, the formerly incarcerated must have equal access to the democratic process. Maryland has taken the first step in keeping rights restoration in the criminal justice reform conversation. Now, the burden falls to the BOE to ensure full and equal voting rights for all by changing the language on the state’s voter registration applications. The rights of 40,000 Marylanders hang in the balance.
Cory McCray is member of the Maryland House of Delegates, representing District 45 in Baltimore City, Maryland.
Dorian Spence serves as counsel in the Voting Rights Project at the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.