Cross-posted on Medium
Yesterday in Baltimore, a crowd gathered at the City Board of Elections to make their voices heard. But this was not a rally protesting an injustice. Instead, they were registering to vote — because yesterday marked the day Maryland officially became one of 14 states, plus the District of Columbia, that restore voting rights to people with past convictions who are living, working, and paying taxes in their communities.
In Maryland, a total of 40,000 citizens can now participate in elections who were unable to before. It took a year to make this change — after Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed the bill, and community, state, and national groups successfully urged the legislature to override that veto.
When many of these Marylanders cast a ballot this election year, it will be more than just a vote. It will be a symbol of empowerment for people like Etta Myers, a Baltimore native and volunteer with Maryland Communities United, who was recently released after spending 36 years in prison on a wrongful conviction. At age 62, this year will be Etta’s first time voting ever.
“After so long in prison, I want to start living like the rest of society. I long to take part in our democracy and make my voice heard. Voting is a right that gives me the ear of people in power,” she wrote in a USA Today op-ed published yesterday. She explained that she wanted to use her vote to support those who would “empower [returning citizens], instead of excluding them from democracy.”
Many of the restored have been out of prison for a decade or more, and before yesterday were still being blocked from the ballot box. Gregory Carpenter, for example, has been out of prison for 21 years, and has since gotten married, raised a family, bought a house, and now runs a non-profit for returning citizens. He registered to vote on Thursday as well.
Local groups like Maryland Communities United hosted the rally with a group of new voters.
This change comes at a critical time for Maryland and the nation. Nationwide, disenfranchisement laws impact nearly 6 million people, and exacerbate racial disparities in our criminal justice system. One in 13 African-Americans are disenfranchised compared to 1 in 40 whites. In Maryland, African Americans comprise more than 61 percent of the 40,000 citizens whose voting rights were restored yesterday.
For the restored, the vote will serve as an opportunity to grow as co-equal members of society and rebuild ties with community. And research has shown these positive effects, indicating that restoring voting rights aides in the re-entry process and reduces recidivism. There are also positive benefits for the families and communities of restored citizens — children with politically engaged parents are more likely to become voting adults, and in neighborhoods with high incarceration rates, disenfranchisement laws have been shown to have a negative effect on voter turnout among people who are eligible vote — resulting in elected officials that are less responsive to the needs of everyone in the community.
Maryland’s breakthrough is the latest in a national trend where more than 20 states in 20 years have scaled back their disenfranchisement policies, including six in the last five years alone. And this new law is especially noteworthy because it creates a bright line rule that will reduce the likelihood of voters being disenfranchised out of confusion or bad information.
But challenges still remain — the onus is now on state officials to get the word out about the change in law, and ensure that individuals aren’t improperly turned away when registering to vote. That is especially important in these early days, and even more so in next month’s early voting period for Maryland’s primaries.
Over the coming months, many newly restored Marylanders will vote for the first time since rejoining their community, and in some cases, for the first time in their lives. With each new registration and each new voter, these citizens are building a stronger democracy.