Monday night was a big one for voting rights in Maryland. The State Senate passed a bill to loosen voter registration rules for formerly incarcerated persons, allowing them to register upon release from prison, rather than having to wait until probation or parole are complete. A hearing on the House companion bill took place on March 11.
Supporters of the legislation said in floor testimony that former prisoners automatically regain a number of rights as soon as they leave incarceration — and that the list should include voting, a way to reintegrate themselves into society.
Plus, they added, many former felons are confused about when exactly they can register to vote and post-prison is the clearest milestone that’s easiest for the state to enforce.
The disenfranchisement of formerly incarcerated persons exacerbates the discrimination they face, particularly in minority communities that are disproportionately represented in the system. They work, pay taxes, and are affected by government decisions. They should be able to hold their elected officials accountable for those decisions. They should be able to vote.
It's fitting that Maryland is showing signs of progress just as its US Senators are reintroducing the Democracy Restoration Act in Congress.
Lead sponsor in the Senate, Ben Cardin:
The United States is one of the few Western democracies that allows the permanent denial of voting rights for individuals with felony convictions. 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. Congress has a responsibility to remedy these problems and enact a nationwide standard for the restoration of voting rights.”
From suffragettes through Civil Rights, expanding access to the ballot box in America has always been a move in the right direction. Disenfranchising former offenders does a disservice to the very idea of democracy. If an American citizen has paid their debt to society after committing a crime, our focus must be on their rehabilitation and full reintegration into society – voting rights and all.
Both PFAW and African American Ministers In Action support the Democracy Restoration Act.
We'll be watching for new developments in Congress and with the Maryland bill.