By Alexis Taylor
Special to the AFRO
Late ballots, incorrect ballots, or no ballot at all — the mishaps of voting during the coronavirus pandemic have been endless. And that’s for citizens with all of their inalienable rights.
For prison populations, voting is a greater challenge:one that, at times, is insurmountable. And that was before COVID-19 began gripping the globe.
More than five decades after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, advocates are crying out louder than ever for all citizens to have their voices heard- including inmates.
Senator Cory McCray, of Baltimore City’s 45th legislative district. (Courtesy Photo)
Senator Cory McCray, of Baltimore City’s 45th legislative district, has now taken up the fight for inmates inside Baltimore’s Pretrial Complex and Central Booking and Intake Center.
“I’ve been focused on the pretrial centers,” said McCray. “The places where we know folks more than likely have the right to vote because they haven’t been convicted of a felony at that moment, but they are just sitting in a cell maybe because they can’t make their bail or are engaged in the court process.”
McCray has a track record of blazing new paths to the ballot box.
“My first piece of legislation that I got passed was for returning citizens,” said McCray. “We needed to restore rights to the folks that were living next door to us, catching the bus like we were doing, paying sales tax like we were doing. These residents were sending their children to the same schools that we sent our children to, but couldn’t take part in the democratic process that makes us equal.”
McCray was a freshman lawmaker when the bill he authored and introduced led to the re-enfranchisement of more than 40,000 Marylanders who had completed their sentences, but had not yet completed their parole or probation.
In the past 13 years, Maryland has made several changes to slowly restore voting rights to returning citizens. Governor Martin O’Malley put an end to lifetime disenfranchisement for felons in 2007 by restoring voting rights to all citizens who had completed their sentence and all parole and probation requirements.
Governor Larry Hogan stated in 2015 that O’Malley’s actions struck a “balance between the repayment of obligations to society for a felony conviction and the restoration of the various restricted rights.”
Hogan vetoed McCray’s legislation to expand re-enfranchisement, but state lawmakers ultimately had the last word. In 2016, Maryland legislators overruled Hogan and passed the bill into law.
According to the Sentencing Project, “of the 745,000 individuals incarcerated in jail as of 2017, nearly two-thirds, or 482,000, were being held pretrial because they had not been able to post bail.”
The Project found that “of the 263,000 who were serving a sentence, the vast majority had been convicted of a misdemeanor offense that does not result in disenfranchisement.”
“There are a lot of people who can’t afford to pay bail and they are detained for that alone,” said Patrick Berry, counsel with the Brennan Center for Justice’s Democracy Program. “The reality is that many people in jail are legally eligible to vote, but most county and city jails don’t have a process in place.”
“These barriers to voting in jails have a disproportionate impact on low income and communities of color that are disproportionately represented in the jail populations due to systemic racism in our justice system.”
Berry said that many of the volunteers and advocates that would normally help inmates register to vote and cast a ballot have been shut out due to the coronavirus pandemic, but that their help is key in ensuring the vote for those in custody. He said having a point person that spearheads voting advocacy for inmates is crucial in making sure they are included in the democratic process.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, “in Maine and Vermont, felons never lose their right to vote, even while they are incarcerated.”
The re-enfranchisement laws vary widely from state to state. Some states apply lifetime voting bans for certain crimes, such as murder. A total of 16 states restore the right to vote automatically upon release, with another 22 states restoring after a fulfillment of other obligations such as probation, parole, and associated fees.
Advocates for re-enfranchisement received a big win this month when Iowa, one of the staunchest strongholds, agreed to finally re-enfranchise felons who have completed all of their parole or probation requirements.
The Supreme Court of the United States decided in 1974 that voting rights for citizens in pretrial facilities should be secure, but how those rights are respected is determined by officials in each state.
Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker made strides for voter enfranchisement in his state last year when he ordered “county jails and local election officials to establish a process that allows detainees awaiting trial to cast their ballots during elections,” while also establishing a temporary polling place for the Cook County Department of Corrections.
“It’s a new day in Illinois — one where we not only recognize the sanctity of the vote, but commit to doing everything we can to invite everyone who is eligible to fully participate,” said Governor J.B. Pritzker in a statement at the time.
But because each state can choose how those voting rights are enforced, inmates often fall through the cracks.
Last September, Secretary Robert L. Green, of the Maryland State Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services issued a directive to further ensure the voting rights of those detained in the Baltimore Pretrial Complex & Central Bookings and Intake Center.
The directive called for a “managing official” to post notices “in inmate housing and recreation areas” that give information on “voter eligibility requirements, the right to request an absentee ballot or voter registration application, and deadlines for returning applications and absentee ballots to the local election board.
Green also mandated that the managing official, which could be a warden, sheriff, or any managing official, produce a list of eligible voters in their custody no later than March 1st of each year for primary elections, and September 1st for general elections in November.
“We have not gotten that list,” said Linda Lamone, election board administrator. “We’re in continuing discussions with the Department and that certainly is one of the topics on my list.”
Lamone said she was told “there were just shy of 2,000 individuals that were on the list and eligible to vote,” as of July 30th for both facilities in Baltimore.
“We’ve offered to the Secretary of the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services our assistance to help educate the voters,” Lemone told the AFRO. “One big thing is to make sure that the signage they have available in all housing facilities is consistent and readable.”
“I have asked my staff to reach out to the Maryland Correctional Administrators Association to see if we can work with them to initiate a similar program in each of the counties,” said Lamone, referring to the organization that runs county correctional facilities.
She added that there is no uniformity among the counties on how to ensure voting rights in pretrial facilities, but similar initiatives could be happening elsewhere in Maryland.
McCray says more needs to be done for those in pretrial detention and called on the State Board of Elections to take the lead in ensuring better communication with the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services.
“We can’t ignore folks that have misdemeanors and folks that haven’t been convicted of a crime at that moment,” said McCray.
“They have the same challenges that we have, whether it’s transportation, education, or the high unemployment rate in our communities. They deal with the same social issues and as long as they want to be, they should be a part of the process.”