Giving former offenders a stake in democracy

Gov. Hogan has a chance to follow in Bob McDonnell's footsteps on voting rights.

With a bill to restore voting rights for formerly incarcerated individuals on his desk awaiting a signature, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan has a chance to do the right thing — and to follow in the footsteps of another Republican governor from a neighboring state.

Last week the Maryland legislature passed a bill that would grant most formerly incarcerated individuals the right to vote after their release from prison. Under current law, everyone who has been to prison must wait until they have completed the final terms of their sentences, including probation and parole, to vote. The new law would make it easier for roughly 40,000 people to exercise their democratic rights.

The bill on Governor Hogan's desk is not only important for the individuals affected, it is important for our society and our democracy. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, the ability to vote is a key factor in helping people reintegrate back into their communities after returning from prison. The right to vote offers a sense of ownership to our democracy — a reminder that each of us holds the key to our own futures through the democratic process.

As a Republican, Governor Hogan has a chance to demonstrate bipartisanship by signing a civil rights bill passed by a Democrat-led legislature. If he does sign it, he will be following in the footsteps of another leader from his own party who made this one of his signature issues: former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell.

Governor McDonnell, who is currently appealing a two-year federal conviction on corruption charges, may have initially seemed an unlikely champion for voting rights. But as a former "law and order" Virginia attorney general, he made voting rights restoration part of his platform as a candidate for governor. As of 2010, Virginia law required those convicted of a felony to wait two years after completing the full terms of their sentences, and to then petition the governor directly to have their rights restored. When Governor McDonnell arrived in office he encountered an overflowing backlog of applications and soon found that the process to restore rights was cumbersome.

Next, Governor McDonnell supported legislation to automatically restore voting rights to anyone who had been convicted of a nonviolent felony. When leaders of his own party failed to support the cause, Governor McDonnell moved forward on his own. In May 2013, he issued an executive order that automatically restored the right to vote — on an individual basis — for anyone who had been convicted of a nonviolent offense, provided they had completed their sentence, finished their probation or parole, and paid off all their fines. While not perfect, it was a major step toward justice from a Republican governor who believed it was the right thing to do.

Beyond Virginia, it is clear that restoring the right to vote is not a partisan issue — just look at this year's crop of Republican presidential contenders. As governor of Florida, Jeb Bush simplified the state's procedures, which led to the restoration of voting rights for 152,000 people. Last year, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky introduced a bill to restore voting rights in federal elections for nonviolent offenders.

Across the country, nearly 6 million Americans are excluded from our political system because of a former felony offense. They pay taxes, live in our communities and send their children to our schools. Yet come election season, they are reminded of their status as second-class citizens, despite having paid their debts to society. They can stake a lawn sign in their yard to support a candidate, but the gesture is meaningless; they have no say in the democratic process.

Many people who have served time in prison are contributing back to society. The bill on Governor Hogan's desk was introduced by Maryland Del. Cory V. McCray. As a young man, Delegate McCray was involved with the drug trade and spent time in a youth correctional facility. After spending his 18th birthday in jail, he joined an apprenticeship program and found a job with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. He now leads his community as an organizer and elected representative.

Everyone deserves a second chance. For people leaving prison, that includes the chance to reintegrate into society and become a contributing member of the community. The right to vote is an integral part of that process.

Ben Jealous, a Democrat and former president and CEO of the NAACP, is a partner at Kapor Capital; his email is benjealous@kaporcenter.org. Janet Vestal Kelly, a Republican, is the former secretary of the commonwealth in Virginia and oversaw the voting rights reforms of the McDonnell administration.

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