Should ex-convicts have the right to vote? Maryland now says yes

Maryland becomes the 17th state to allow ex-convicts to vote after completing their prison terms and while serving probation or parole.

Gail Burton/AP
Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan delivers his State of the State address at the statehouse in Annapolis, Md., Wednesday, Feb. 3, 2016.

Until Tuesday, Maryland was one of 35 states that prohibit felons from voting even after they complete their terms of incarceration.

But the Maryland State Senate just overrode Republican Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto in a 29-18 vote for a law that will allow the state’s 40,000 ex-offenders to vote while on parole or probation. The Maryland House overrode the governor's veto last month.

Current policy requires convicts to finish parole and probation before their voting rights are restored. Proponents of the latest measure say the disenfranchisement of ex-offenders makes reintegration unnecessarily difficult. They note that parolees are affected by political decisions for issues such as housing and employment.

Opponents, most of whom Republican, argue that while felons should be allowed to vote, they should first have to complete every segment of their sentence, to fully pay their debt to society.

“Today, twenty-nine people in the Maryland Senate decided to ignore reason and common sense and support an action that the vast majority of Marylanders vehemently oppose,” Gov. Hogan’s spokesman Doug Mayer wrote in an email statement. “For too long, voters have been completely ignored by their elected representatives in Annapolis.”

Hogan initially vetoed the bill last spring, and has since initiated a social media campaign against it. But the Democrat-controlled General Assembly prevailed.

"It's unfair," Sen. Joanne C. Benson told the Baltimore Sun. Ms. Benson, a Democrat from Prince George's County, said she interrupted her sick day in order to make the vote in favor of the bill once again. "The whole system is unfair," she said, emphasizing that the vast majority of the affected population are African-American, like her.

The bill was originally penned by Cory McCray, a delegate from Baltimore, the district with the highest number of former felons. He told ThinkProgress that the recently passed law will help keep elected officials like Hogan accountable.

“When you can’t vote, you don’t have a seat at the table,” he said. “Obviously, they’ve made mistakes, but these are our family members, our friends, our neighbors. These folks pay taxes. You can’t leave 40,000 people out of the conversation on subject matters that directly and indirectly impact them, like criminal justice reform, housing, access to fresh foods, employment, and transportation.”

According to a 2014 YouGov poll, 67 percent of Americans believe that felons should either never lose their right to vote or be allowed to vote after their sentences are complete. Twenty-one percent of surveyed citizens believe that a conviction should mean permanent disenfranchisement.

Last year, US Senator Benjamin Cardin (D) of Maryland introduced a federal measure that would allow all former convicted felons to vote in federal elections, echoing the recommendations of former Attorney General Eric Holder.

"State disenfranchisement laws deny citizens participation in our democracy and the patchwork of laws leads to an unfair disparity and unequal participation in federal elections based solely on where an individual lives, in addition to the racial disparities inherent in our judicial system," Cardin said, as reported by The Hill.

Titled the “Democracy Restoration Act of 2015,” the bill has since been referred to committee.

Only two states, Maine and Vermont, have no restrictions on felons' voting rights. Fifteen other states, including Washington, D.C. and now Maryland, allow ex-offenders to vote as soon as their prison sentences are complete. Minnesota lawmakers are considering similar measures.

In 11 states, convicted felons permanently lose their voting rights.

[Editor's note: The original headline for this article referred to "ex-felons" instead of "ex-convicts." An ex-felon is a person who has completely served his or her sentence, including parole or probation. The Maryland legislation extends the right to vote to current felons who are still serving their debt to society through parole or probation.]

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