Don't deny Maryland's ex-convicts right to vote

October 17, 2006|By Michael Pinard

As we approach another Election Day, once again a significant portion of our community will be banned from the voting booths. More than 110,000 people in Maryland, 1 out of 37 residents, are disenfranchised because of criminal convictions. Three-quarters of them are not incarcerated but are living in Maryland's communities. Nearly half have completed their full sentences.

Maryland's disenfranchisement laws sit outside the mainstream in the United States. Maryland is one of only 11 states that permanently disenfranchise some residents. Sixteen states have changed their laws in recent years to ease various voting restrictions. Maryland is among these states, but the lifetime voting ban that remains for some offenses is a reminder of the dark past, when disenfranchisement laws across the South strived to bar African-Americans from voting booths, and the logistical difficulties with other aspects of these laws often force shut the doors opened by the Voting Rights Act in 1965.

According to the Sentencing Project, approximately 58 percent of Maryland's disenfranchised population is African-American, making the rate of African-American disenfranchisement twice as high as the state's overall rate.

For people seeking to regain their right to vote, Maryland's laws create confusion and pose serious logistical hurdles. Although some people with felony convictions are technically eligible to vote after completion of their sentences, many - particularly those who must complete lengthy parole sentences after release - are unaware of the exact date that their sentences terminate. Further, people with two nonviolent felony convictions are subject to a three-year waiting period after completion of sentence before they can register to vote.

Because criminal justice agencies do not inform individuals when their sentences have been fully completed, many people who are otherwise eligible do not register to vote simply because they do not know that they can do so.

The international context further illuminates Maryland's laws. In many democracies across the globe, including Britain, Canada and South Africa, the right to vote is considered so sacrosanct that it survives incarceration.

Maryland should clarify and ease its disenfranchisement laws in two ways. First, the General Assembly should repeal the law permanently disenfranchising those with two or more violent felony convictions. Maryland is an outlier in this regard, as it is among a small minority of states that strike this heavy blow. Second, Maryland should adopt legislation that automatically restores the right to vote upon completion of a jail or prison sentence. People living in the community, working and supporting their families should not be deprived of their constitutional right to vote. This change would eliminate the confusion that results from people not being notified of the completion of their sentences.

The reasons to ease Maryland's disenfranchisement laws are clear. First, our vote is our voice in the affairs of our communities. The right to vote is among our most precious resources. Permanently silencing this right shatters the core of the democratic process.

Second, with the right to vote comes dignity. By extending disenfranchisement past incarceration, Maryland continues to stigmatize people by separating them from politics and their communities.

Third, disenfranchisement often frustrates constructive re-entry from prison to the community. Recent research by sociologists Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza has found a connection between participation in voting and reoffending. People who voted after release from supervision were more than 50 percent less likely to be rearrested than those who did not vote, according to their research. The right to vote creates a sense of belonging and responsibility, factors that are crucial to productive re-entry.

These reforms are long overdue. Maryland's laws should be changed to reflect the simple fact that individuals in the community are part of the community.

Michael Pinard is an assistant professor at the University of Maryland School of Law. His e-mail is mpinard@law.umaryland.edu.

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