Currently in the state of Maryland, individuals convicted of felonies are prohibited from voting until after their sentences are complete, including parole and probation. In this year’s legislative session, state Senator Joan Carter Conway has proposed Senate Bill 340, which would automatically restore voting rights after incarceration, allowing those on parole and probation to vote.
On March 16, the Maryland Senate voted 29-18 in favor of the bill, which is now going to the Maryland House of Delegates for consideration. More than 50 of the House’s 141 members are listed as co-sponsors.
It is estimated that this legislation will reinstate the voting rights of nearly 40,000 Marylanders who were convicted felons in the past but have since finished serving time in prison and are once again active in their communities.
Senator Conway, the Baltimore Democrat who spearheaded the bill, argues that voting should be among the rights offenders regain upon leaving prison because it will help reintegrate them into society. She also notes that 10 to 15 other states allow ex-convicts to vote while still on parole or probation and two even allow offenders to vote while still in jail.
In a letter to the Senate in support of the bill, American Probation and Parole Association (APPA) Executive Director Carl Wicklund wrote, “We [at the APPA] support Senate Bill 340 because we believe that civic participation is integral to successful rehabilitation and reintegration… It helps transform one’s identity from deviant to law-abiding citizen.”
Many Senate Democrats have stated that many former felons are unsure about when they are allowed to vote again. By allowing all felons to vote immediately upon release from prison, confusion will be eliminated and it will become easier for the state to enforce any voting restrictions.
Senate Republicans, all of whom opposed the bill, countered by saying that probation, parole, and paying restitution are part of a criminal’s punishment and that voting privileges should not be restored until the sentence is completed in its entirety. “These are felons who have not completed their sentence,” Frederick County Senator Michael Hough declared during a floor debate. “Just because you’re on parole or probation does not mean you’ve completed your sentence. This [bill] is sending a bad message.”
Nationally, felon disenfranchisement laws prevent nearly 6 million Americans from voting. In an effort to combat recent waves of low voter turnout, the federal government has joined in the movement to dismantle these restrictions. On March 18, several U.S. Senators and Congressmen backed a proposal from civil rights and voting rights groups to restore voting rights in federal elections to Americans after incarceration. Republican Congressmen responded that the bill should apply only to non-violent offenders. However, neither version is projected to pass the current Congress.
Nevertheless, this suffrage movement has permeated the governments of several states across the nation as political office holders and their constituents have begun to advocate for felon re-enfranchisement. In Florida, Minnesota, Iowa, Virginia, and Kentucky, as well as in Maryland, advocates are pushing for new legislation to remove felon voting barriers.
“These laws, with their disparate impact on minority communities, echo policies enacted during a deeply troubled period in America’s past – a time of post-Civil War repression,” outgoing U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder said in support of the various bills. “They have their roots in centuries-old conceptions of justice that were too often based on exclusion, animus, and fear.”
Article by MoCo Student staff writer Catherine Yang of Wootton High School