Today we salute the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act by honoring its meaning and calling on Congress to ensure its continued vitality. But the fight for access to the ballot does not end there. More than 4 million Americans can’t vote because of a past criminal conviction. They’ve served their time, paid their debts, but are permanently barred from voting. For the most part this is a matter of state law. And while several states have recently eased their criminal disenfranchisement rules, in one state all that stand between the status quo and voting rights restoration is a single veto and a subsequent opportunity.
Both houses of the Maryland legislature passed a voting rights restoration bill by wide margins earlier this year. Gov. Larry Hogan (R) vetoed it. Today, members of Maryland’s Unlock the Vote coalition — a broad group that includes both Maryland advocates and national organizations like the Brennan Center — will gather in Baltimore to support restoration of the right to vote to approximately 40,000 Maryland citizens currently disenfranchised while on probation and parole.
The legislature can override Hogan’s veto when it reconvenes early next year. Restoring voting rights is a smart reform that serves not only the re-enfranchised, but their communities and the state at large. This is because rights restoration is good for both democracy and public safety.
Voting restoration will strengthen democracy in Maryland by giving tens of thousands the opportunity to re-engage in civic life. The citizens affected by this bill are already living, working, and raising families in the state, but they have no say in the electoral process that shapes their lives. This is especially important for minority citizens — African Americans make up nearly 60 percent of those who have completed incarceration but cannot vote.
By overriding the veto, Maryland’s legislature can also enhance public safety. 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. Nationwide, law enforcement groups are joining the effort for voting rights restoration because they recognize its benefits. Carl Wicklund, executive director of the American Probation and Parole Association explained his organization’s support in a letter to the Maryland Senate: “[V]oting is part of a package of pro-social behavior that is linked to desistance from crime. Someone who has a stake in the community, who seems himself or herself as a member of that community, is less likely to offend that community.” Many political leaders are reaching similar conclusions.
The history of the franchise in America is one of inclusion and expansion. Women, African Americans, and 18-year-olds were all granted the right to vote. And 50 years ago, the Voting Rights Act was passed so African Americans would have fair access to the ballot. Now, in the face of the governor’s veto, the Maryland legislature faces a similar choice. It can opt for the outdated and overly punitive policies of the past, or it can ensure the franchise spreads to those who deserve it.