One of the harsh realities facing ex-offenders on their release from prison is the realization that, even though they have served their time, society still views them as outlaws when it comes to voting. A modest proposal being considered in Annapolis this year would expand the voting rights of ex-offenders and help ease their re-entry into the community. It's an admittedly small first step toward expanding the franchise, and much more needs to be done. Nevertheless, it deserves serious considerations from lawmakers.
At present, people who have lost their right to vote as a result of a criminal conviction don't automatically get it back when they return to their communities. In Maryland, ex-offenders can't register to vote until they have fulfilled all the terms of their sentences, including any period of probation or parole after their release. That can add years to the time they must wait before their voting rights are fully restored.
The bill before the Maryland General Assembly this year would change what some lawmakers call an overly punitive policy that continues to penalize ex-offenders long after they have paid their debt to society. The measure, which passed the state Senate this week and now goes to the House, would allow ex-offenders to register to vote as soon as they are released from prison rather than waiting until after they've completed probation or parole as well.
The measure would instruct the state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services to notify ex-offenders upon their release from prison that their voting rights will be restored and to give them a voter registration form along with another document offering them an opportunity to register and help filling out the form. It would also require the department to provide similar notifications to people discharged from prison before the bill's effective date of Oct. 1, 2015 and allow prisoners who are still incarcerated to participate in educational programs informing them of their rights under the law before their release.
The bill's sponsors, Sen. Joan Carter Conway and Del. Cory V. McCray, say the change is needed because being eligible to vote is an important symbol of one's standing in the community and ex-offenders who are trying to re-establish themselves as productive members of society shouldn't be stigmatized as second-class citizens because of laws barring them from casting ballots. The right of citizens to participate in elections that determine their political leaders is a bedrock principle of democratic societies, and denying people the franchise for whatever reason inevitably diminishes them in the eyes of their peers.
If passed, the measure would bring Maryland more into line with other states that have begun rethinking their approach to ex-offenders. Currently, 15 to 20 states already let ex-offenders vote while on parole and probation, and two states even let inmates who are still serving time cast ballots. Nothing in the Maryland legislation goes quite that far, but shortening the time people have to wait to have their voting rights restored clearly isn't something lawmakers elsewhere view as dangerous or impractical.
That said, the Maryland ex-offender bill represents only a small part of the broader effort to expand voting rights, which increasingly has come under attack in some parts of the country. If the goal is to allow as many people as possible to express their preferences at the ballot box there are more things the state could do to expedite matters, such as allowing voters to register online, permitting same-day registration, early voting and extended hours at polling places, and keeping the polls open on weekends.
Voting rights groups have been advocating such changes for years to ensure the right of all citizens to participate in the democratic process. Maryland's ex-offender bill is a step in the right direction, but it's just the tip of the iceberg in terms of all the work that remains to be done.