A Maryland Senate committee held a hearing today on legislation that would restore voting rights to nearly 40,000 people unable to vote because of a past felony conviction. This is the latest indication of increasing momentum to reform the nation’s antiquated felony disenfranchisement laws.
Currently, Maryland law bars those with felony convictions from voting until they have fully completed the terms of their sentence, including probation and parole. This leads to a problematic outcome: people are released from prison, but are unable to fully integrate into their communities. Bills like SB 340 are smart reforms as they serve both democracy and public safety.
Our democracy is stronger when citizens participate. By restoring the right to vote to thousands of people who live, work, and raise families in Maryland communities, this bill will create an opportunity to re-engage citizens in civic life.
It will also make communities safer. One study on the relationship between voting and recidivism found “consistent differences between voters and non-voters in rates of subsequent arrests, incarceration, and self-reported criminal behavior.” A Florida government analysis found that the recidivism rate of those whose voting rights were restored was roughly one-third that of those who remained unable to vote.
Law enforcement professionals are a part of the wide base of support for voting rights restoration because they understand its impact on public safety. In a letter submitted to the Maryland Senate, Carl Wicklund, Executive Director of the American Probation and Parole Association, wrote that “there is no credible evidence showing that continuing to disenfranchise people who have rejoined the community serves any legitimate law enforcement purpose.”
Additionally, Maryland’s law, like others across the country, has a disproportionate impact on racial minorities. Of the state’s population of disenfranchised people who have completed incarceration, nearly 60 percent are African-American. Giving these people their vote back will give them and their communities a greater voice in elections and policy making generally.
Over the past two decades, more than 20 states have improved their felony disenfranchisement laws, either by repealing permanent bans or by easing the restoration process. That includes Maryland, which ended lifetime felony disenfranchisement in 2007. In neighboring Virginia, governors have issued two executive orders in the past two years to make it possible for more people to get their voting rights. It may soon include Minnesota, where just last week a rights restoration bill passed a state senate committee, and Kentucky, where this month a bill passed the state house of representatives. And it could still include the country at large, as federal reform has support from members of both political parties.
In addition to today’s hearing, the bill’s House version, HB 980, was introduced with more than 50 co-sponsors. The bill’s supporters include a strong collection of Maryland advocates who form the Unlock the Vote coalition, and national groups, like the Brennan Center. While there remains a great deal of work ahead to ensure the bill’s passage, the hearing is a reminder that the momentum in Maryland and elsewhere exists.