Article23 Felon Voting Rights1-002

Advocates and former felons testify before the Senate’s Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee on expanding voting rights for former felons. From left to right: James Grayson, Greg Carpenter, Perry Hopkins, Tomas Lopez and Nicole Porter. (AFRO Photo/by Roberto Alejandro)

A Senate hearing on whether to expand voting rights to former felons still on parole or probation saw hints of bipartisan support for the effort, as advocates and former felons gave poignant testimony about the impact the franchise can have on the reintegration process for those recently released from prison. Advocates also touted the support of some law enforcement groups for this sort of reform, driven by the desire to reduce recidivism.

The bill, Senate Bill 340 (SB 340), would grant voting rights to felons convicted of a non-voting related crime immediately upon release from prison, regardless of whether they were still serving court mandated parole or probation.

Testimony on SB 340 was heard Feb. 26 by the Senate’s Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee, chaired by Sen. Joan Conway (D-Baltimore City), who is also the bill’s sponsor (Del. Cory McCray of Baltimore City is sponsoring the House version of the bill). Maryland restored the franchise to felons in 2007 under then-Gov. Martin O’Malley, but only for those who had completed parole and probation in addition to their incarceration.

“In looking at the [2007 measure] as it relates to felons, it appeared to me that in many instances, whatever the crime is, it has no association at all with voting,” said Conway.  “And when you look at the crime or the conviction—I mean it’s not voter tampering, it’s not any of the things related to voting—so in my opinion, as I continue to look at it, just seems to be another form of voter suppression.”

Nicole Porter of the Sentencing Project testified in support of the bill, and pointed out that expanding the voting rights of former felons has national support from some law enforcement organizations because of its potential positive effect on reintegration.

“You all have testimony from the American Association of Probation and Parole who are strong advocates in support of voting rights for people with prior convictions and they recognize the social benefit of engaging people with prior justice contact, justice involvement, in future democratic processes so that their connections to the community are strengthened, and that reduces future recidivism,” said Porter.

Perry Hopkins, an organizer with Communities United and a former felon, gave the afternoon’s most poignant testimony, speaking of what it was like to see the nation’s first Black president elected in 2008, yet have to sit on the sidelines because he was still on parole or probation.

“I remember watching everybody in the streets cheer and say, ‘We have a new president, did you vote?’ And I couldn’t say yes. It was this law that made me a witness of history rather than a participant in history. That psychological effect, for many, is a little more than they’re able to overcome,” said Hopkins, calling the alienation that felon disenfranchisement produces “dangerous.”

Sen. Bryan Simonaire (R-Anne Arundel County) hinted at the emergence of some bipartisan support for the measure, saying, “A couple of years ago I wouldn’t have supported a piece of legislation like this and I’m coming around to it.”

Simonaire expressed still wanting to have some dialogue around the issue of expanding voting rights when there was still a court mandated punishment (parole or probation) at play, but after Conway spoke a bit about the lack of connection between relevant convictions and voting, as well as the tendency of many young people to accept plea bargains at an age where they do not fully grasp the longer term civic consequences of the decision, Simonaire responded, “You probably have an unlikely supporter from me.”

No testimony was offered in opposition to the bill at the hearing.