If elected governor, Democrat Alec Ross wants Maryland to vote by mail, by smartphone and from jail cells.
Ross unveiled a broad campaign promise Monday to expand access to voting, and part of that promise is to allow incarcerated people to cast ballots while still behind bars.
“I don’t understand how stripping people of their citizenship became part of punishments,” Ross said. “It doesn’t make sense to me. They’ve lost their freedom, but they haven’t lost their voice.”
Last year, Maryland lawmakers restored voting rights to convicted felons on parole, but left in place a prohibition against felons voting while locked up.
Only two states, Maine and Vermont, allow felons to vote while in prison.
Although jailhouse ballots are the most provocative piece of Ross’ multi-part plan, he said two of his ideas would most quickly increase access to the ballot box: universal voter registration and a month-long early voting period.
Ross, an author and tech entrepreneur, advocates that Maryland join a handful of states with universal voter registration — an opt-out system that puts all eligible voters on the rolls unless they ask to be taken off.
Democrats in the Maryland General Assembly pressed a similar proposal in 2016 that would have automatically registered eligible voters when they visited state offices that offer social services or driver’s licenses. It failed by three votes on the floor of the Senate.
Advocates say it could dramatically increase voter participation, but opponents question whether people who don’t actively register to vote would even show up at the polls.
Ross also suggested expanding the early voting period from its current eight days to a full four weeks, and eventually instituting a system used by several Western states that mails ballots to every registered voter, not just those who ask for an absentee.
Ross said voting is central to democracy, but Americans don’t do everything they can to promote it.
“That disconnect is incomprehensible to me,” he said. “We have failed to do the simple things to support voting.”
Ross envisions Maryland’s elections’ eventually being conducted online and through smartphones, which he called the “holy grail” of election access.
He also promised to support an independent commission to draw Maryland’s next legislative boundaries, an idea embraced by Republican Gov. Larry Hogan and rejected by many leading Maryland Democrats.
Ross is one of eight Democrats running in the primary election for governor, which takes place June 26. He’s the first candidate to pitch an extensive plan about expanding access to voting.
Ross said he will release a separate policy on campaign finance reform.
He said his primary goal is to increase turnout among all voters. Roughly a third of Maryland’s eligible voters stay home in presidential election years, he said, and nearly half do so during gubernatorial election years.
His plan also calls for spending more on election security, after Maryland was among nearly two dozen states the government said were targeted by Russian hackers last year.
The attack in Maryland was not successful, but it has raised questions and sparked hearings in Annapolis about how to better secure the state’s election system.
Maryland primarily uses hand-marked, paper ballots that are read by an optical scanner to count votes.
The other Democrats running for governor are Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz, state Sen. Richard S. Madaleno, Prince George’s County Executive Rushern L. Baker III, former Michelle Obama aide Krish Vignarajah, former Venable law firm chair Jim Shea, former NAACP CEO Ben Jealous and political consultant Maya Rockeymoore Cummings.