When the Maryland General Assembly reconvenes on January 13, it will have an historic opportunity to restore the voting rights of tens of thousands of ex-offenders like me. Last year, the Maryland General Assembly resoundingly passed SB340/HB980, a bill that will restore the vote to Maryland citizens who live in our communities but cannot vote because of one or more past felony convictions. Disappointingly, Governor Larry Hogan vetoed it in May. But the General Assembly can and should override this veto in the opening days of the 2016 legislative session.
Today, more than 40,000 people in Maryland are denied the vote due to past felony convictions. We Marylanders who are African American make up 30 percent of Maryland's population but still represent nearly three-quarters of our prison population. And we represent 65 percent of those who are disenfranchised by felony convictions.
We are your neighbors, friends, and maybe even your relatives. We prepare your food, serve your meal, and clear your tables at restaurants. We clean your hotel and hospital rooms. We fix and wash your cars. We build and repair your homes. Our children are your children's friends and classmates. We are your co-workers. We attend church and worship with you. We live in Maryland communities, go to work and pay our taxes. Still, many of us remain second class citizens when it comes time to the vote.
Having completed probation and parole, I am now eligible to vote. But having received conflicting information, I only recently learned that I was eligible. The current law is confusing. Everyday, I talk with ex-offenders who are misinformed about their right to vote, and they are afraid to even register because they do not want get in trouble again.
As bill sponsor Senator Joan Carter Conway puts it, “the current law suppresses the vote.” State and local boards of election do not have the capacity to verify whether an individual has completed probation and parole and is thus eligible to vote. The new law draws a clear line that is easy for everyone to understand and simple for the boards of election to implement: if you are out of prison, you can vote.
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I am 54 years old but have never been inside a voting booth. I remember feeling disconnected from history when Barack Obama became our nation's first African-American president. Nor was I able to model for my children the solemn duty of citizenship – going to vote.
Receiving my voter card a few months ago was an exciting moment for me, and so look forward to casting my vote in this year’s critical city and federal elections. Participating in elections is essential to my everyday attempt to positively contribute to my community and my country.
Voting rights for parolees and probationers promotes public safety, which is why law enforcement professionals support restoring our voting rights. The American Probation and Parole Association wrote to the Maryland Senate's Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee last February in support of SB340: “One of the core missions of parole and probation supervision is to support the successful transition from prison and jail to the community. Civic participation is an integral part of this transition because it helps transform one's identity from deviant to law-abiding citizen.” Personal experience, research and common sense tell us that those who vote have more stake in their communities and are less likely to re-offend.
Overriding the governor's veto will enfranchise tens of thousands of Marylanders just in time for 2016 elections. I ardently urge the the General Assembly to override Governor Hogan's veto and to reinstate the vote for all of us living, working, and paying taxes in our communities.