“Apart from being a fundamental democratic right, voting is essential to a formerly incarcerated citizen’s rehabilitation. Ex-felons who have been released from prison, and are living in our neighborhoods, are a part of our community. These individuals who have paid their societal debts are unduly barred from being fully re-integrated back into society by being denied the right to vote. These restrictions serve only to further alienate and isolate millions of Americans as they work to regain normality in their lives.” – Rep. John Conyers, April 10, 2014
A wrong has been made right in the state of Maryland.
In a long overdue reversal led by the state’s legislature, ex-offenders in Maryland—citizens who have done the proscribed time for their crime—will automatically regain the right to vote once they have been released from jail. Prior to this vote, Maryland required all individuals with past felony convictions to complete all terms of their probation and parole before their access to the polls could be restored through what many described as a lengthy and confusing process. The previous policy—which disproportionately impacted communities of color—was unduly punitive; delaying and denying men and women who paid their debt to society and completed their prison sentences the quintessential right of any citizen who lives in a democracy. Such tactics of voter disenfranchisement must not be tolerated or become an acceptable policy option in a nation that professes to be governed by democratic tenets.
Once the Maryland bill becomes law, an estimated 40,000 men and women currently on felony probation or parole will have their right to vote restored—many of them in time to vote for their local and national leaders, including our nation’s new president. While there is much to applaud, we must recognize that this victory is a drop in the proverbial bucket. Today, in the United States of America, almost six million citizens are effectively locked out of the democratic process because of laws that disenfranchise citizens convicted of felony offenses. Maryland now joins 13 other states, plus the District of Columbia, in immediately restoring the voting rights of ex-offenders upon their release. There are nine states that permanently bar certain ex-offenders from voting at all. Two states, Maine and Vermont, do not restrict voting rights to any citizen with a criminal conviction, even those still in prison, but this is a battle that must continue to be fought around our nation.
Among other benefits, voting promotes public safety. When we allow citizens to fully re-integrate back into society that must include more than securing employment or housing. While those pursuits and others are important, civic engagement can establish a vested interest in the well being of the communities where ex-offenders make their homes, work and pay taxes.
Because of the enduring tangle of race and the criminal justice in our nation, the majority of convicted felons disproportionately come from racial and ethnic communities, effectively disenfranchising not only individuals but entire communities. The restoration movement is therefore a movement to confront racial discrimination in the criminal justice system. Throughout our nation, nearly one in 13 African-American adults are banned from voting because of these laws. And it should come as no surprise that the states that have the harshest policies just happen to be those states with legacies of slavery, segregation, discrimination, voter suppression and the denial of the right to vote. Felon disenfranchisement is a tactic to suppress the vote, as much as voter id laws, and it must be stopped.
America should not be in the business of denying individuals the right the vote. We are a stronger and truer democracy when we offer all citizens this fundamental right. Denying an ex-offender the right to vote serves no real purpose other than to undermine the democratic principals on which our nation is founded.
Marc Morial is the president and CEO of the National Urban League.