ANNAPOLIS – For the third time, Delegate Salima Siler Marriott, D-Baltimore, is sponsoring legislation to restore voting rights to some disenfranchised ex-convicts upon their release from jail.
Marriott is hopeful that this time the bill, which was heard Wednesday by the House Ways and Means Committee, will be successful because of the strong and broad support behind it.
The bill allows ex-felons to register to vote upon completion of their prison sentences.
The time is right for this bill because of a large groundswell of community support according to Delegate Peter D. Franchot, D-Montgomery.
Current state law requires a wait of three years after all aspects of the sentence have been fulfilled, including any restitution, fines or community service.
“I think we have to mobilize commitment to do the right thing,” Marriott said.
The passage of the bill, Marriott said, “can symbolize Maryland breaking from a tradition of denying voting rights, particularly to African Americans.”
An associate professor at the Maryland School of Law, Sherrilyn A. Ifill, told lawmakers that Reconstruction-era voting legislation targeted ex-offenders in the South to prevent African Americans from voting.
“We assume if you have your citizenship you have the right to vote,” Ifill said, but that wasn’t always the case. Women, African Americans and those who didn’t own property often were denied the right to vote.
That time has ended and all should have the right to vote, Ifill said.
“Do we want to continue to punish someone for their entire lives for a crime they have committed?” she said.
There is only one instance, already a law, where permanently barring someone from voting fits the crime, said Marriott — when someone is convicted of buying or selling votes.
Maryland would not be alone in passing such legislation, said the assistant director of The Sentencing Project, Marc Mauer, whose written testimony said nine states have reformed their disenfranchisement statutes since 1996.
Marriott said Maryland is among 13 states that disenfranchise some citizens for life. Meanwhile, Maine and Vermont allow people to vote in prison.
Kimberly Haven, 43, is a single mother of a teenage son and an ex-convict.
“On the surface, I belong to my community,” she told the committee. “The reality is, I don’t belong, don’t matter, don’t count…I am deemed a second-class citizen. I’ve been denied my right to vote.”
But, Delegate Jean B. Cryor, R-Montgomery, doesn’t see the issue the same way.
“I think the right to vote is very special,” Cryor said, later adding that perhaps the state’s role should be to help ex-convicts identify when their three-year voting prohibition ends.
Tara Andrews, Maryland Justice Coalition director, said voting rights are part of an ex-offender’s road to full rehabilitation in the community.
If convicts have paid restitution for their crimes by going to jail, they should then be able to move on and be given the opportunity to become fully active community members, she said. The responsibility of voting is an opportunity to prove that.
“An individual,” Andrews said, “is not fully restored until he or she regains the right to vote.”