By Demetrius Dillard
Special to the AFRO
In many major American cities, the issue of voting rights continues to foster controversy across the political spectrum, particularly as it relates to race.
In the most recent presidential election, widely considered to be one of the most important ones in modern history, community leaders in Baltimore City fought vehemently against local voter suppression measures. Two D.C.-based organizations documented some of these extensive efforts in a recent documentary.
The Oberlin Club of Washington, D.C., and the Bertelsmann Foundation collaborated to air “Out to Vote,” a special online screening that documented get-out-the-vote efforts in Baltimore in the weeks leading up to the 2020 national election.
The 30-minute film begins with a brief background of Bobby Perkins, a former Golden Glove champion who fell into a life of crime in his early teenage years. After completing a 37-year prison sentence, Perkins returned to Baltimore and became active in voter registration efforts.
“I never once ever thought I would come home and make a difference,” said Perkins, who now serves as an outreach coordinator with Out for Justice.
“Can you imagine a man that’s been in prison 37 years, from being very, and then one day you find yourself free and you get the opportunity without being prejudiced to turn things around, and to make yourself worthwhile?”
After winning a fight to restore voting rights for formerly incarcerated people, returning citizens and community leaders Nicole Hanson-Mundell and Monica Cooper joined Perkins to engage marginalized communities in the democratic process, which is outlined throughout the documentary.
Felony disenfranchisement is among this nation’s most pressing issues. A report by The Sentencing Project estimates that 5.17 million people were disenfranchised due to a felony conviction as of 2020.
Hanson-Mundell, executive director of Out for Justice, highlighted that state law allows convicted felons, including those on probation or parole, the right to vote.
Since 2007, formerly incarcerated individuals in Maryland have been eligible to vote. However, many of them are unaware of their fundamental right, prompting local organizations like the Maryland Justice Project and Out for Justice to lead the effort in ensuring everyone takes advantage of voting opportunities.
“When you think about your right to vote, you think about all the folks who suffered,” Hanson-Mundell said.
“When you get your right to vote back, it’s just like getting back something that always belonged to you.”
Cooper, the executive director of Maryland Justice Project, drove from block to block offering city residents a ride to the polls. Part of her role also included convincing community members that their vote matters.
“The thing is that the people who we are encountering right now in the community that’s out here on the corners – they are the ones who are not voting,” Cooper said.
“And they have been convinced that their vote does not matter, but you got to find out how do you reach them. And if that means go pick them up and take them to the polls, then that’s what I will do.”
The documentary also includes a segment on Latasha Fason, who recently completed a prison sentence thanks to the services of Out for Justice, a nonprofit aiming to engender policy reform that ends employment barriers among other challenges that adversely affect citizens impacted by the criminal justice system.
About two-thirds of the way through the film, Fason received a concerning letter from the Board of Elections stating that she was “temporarily ineligible to register and vote if you have been convicted of a felony and have not completed the court-ordered sentence of imprisonment.”
Apparently, she committed a crime that required cancellation of her voter registration. Fason, along with dozens of others, have received notices from the city misinforming them on their eligibility to vote, according to Hanson-Mundell.
Hanson-Mundell joined colleagues to address the letter in a press conference, and the film ended on a positive note: Fason cast her vote.
“I feel good. I feel like I performed my civil duty,” she said.
Following the screening was a 30-minute panel discussion featuring Cooper, Samuel George, filmmaker of “Out to Vote”, and Dana Paikowsky, an Equal Justice Works fellow at the Campaign Legal Center.