Baltimore City Legislators, Advocates Pushing to Expand Voting Rights of Ex-Felons

Perry Hopkins (left) and John Comer, organizers with Communities United, posed for a picture while waiting outside the offices of Sen. Joan Conway(D-Baltimore City) in the Miller Senate Building for information on Conway’s senate bill to restore voting rights to ex-felons immediately upon release from prison.

Baltimore City legislators and advocates are pushing to expand the voting rights of former felons by making them eligible to vote immediately upon release from prison, even if they are still serving a term of parole or probation. Sen. Joan Conway (D-Baltimore City) has submitted a bill in the senate and Del. Cory McCray (D-Baltimore City) will soon submit a house version.

Conway’s bill, senate bill 340 (SB340), would expand the re-enfranchisement rights then Gov. Martin O’Malley signed into law in 2007. That law restored the franchise to felons who had completed their sentence including any term of parole or probation. Conway’s bill would reform that law, removing the requirement that formerly convicted felons complete parole or probation terms prior to having their voting rights reinstated.

SB340 would also require that the Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, which oversees the administration of the state’s prisons, notify each inmate in writing that his or her right to vote will be reinstated upon release, as well as provide the inmate with a voter registration form.

McCray, who will introduce the house version of the bill on Feb. 13, said that formerly convicted felons reentering society must have a say in the myriad issues which affect their life chances after release. “This [reentry] population faces dire circumstances in reference to employment, to housing, and right now they’re voiceless when they’re not able to engage in the process that affects them so much,” said McCray.

Perry Hopkins, an advocate and organizer for ex-offender’s rights with Communities United and former felon, says that restoring the right to vote of formerly convicted felons will help drive down the alienation that often results in recidivism. “Being an ex-offender, [the right to vote] is very important to the reentry process. It’s very important to your civility – you have the right to vote, you’re a part of the citizenry,” said Perry. “Feeling outside of your normal rights, it leaves you alienated. There’s already enough discrimination against the ex-offender, or the ex-felon, entering into society.”

Last month at forum at the University of Baltimore, Marc Mauer, executive director of the Sentencing Project, mentioned that when people are sentenced to prison by a judge, they are rarely informed that their access to public benefits and the right to vote will also be affected. This results in what Mauer called imposing a “life-long sentence” on those convicted of a crime.

SB340 addresses this by requiring that courts, prior to handing down a sentence of incarceration for a felony conviction, or prior to accepting a plea of guilty to a felony charge that would result in incarceration, notify defendants on the record that their right to vote will be suspended during the course of their incarceration.

If the General Assembly moves to expand the franchise rights of former felons this legislative session, Maryland will join 13 other states plus the District of Columbia in restoring the right to vote to formerly convicted felons immediately upon release from prison, according to the New York University School of Law Brennan Center for Justice.

For Hopkins, that right is a reminder that one still matters and has a role to play in civil society.

“An ex-felon or an ex-offender is worth much more to society when he’s able to participate in a constructive and productive way, than he is when you strip him of his rights,” said Hopkins.