After the death of Freddie Gray, leaders from Annapolis came into our neighborhoods, shot some hoops, attended church services and gave lip service about change. But those leaders have never endured the high levels of poverty, lack of access to fresh food, dilapidated housing or high levels of joblessness that plague those neighborhoods. That is why many community members were not convinced by their words.
On Friday, Gov. Larry Hogan gave them more reason to be skeptical. At 2 p.m. on the Friday before a holiday weekend, when many people were already away on vacation, he vetoed House Bill 980, which restored voting rights to ex-felons upon their release from prison, rather than waiting until they're off parole or probation. The timing seems calculated and political and designed to deflect attention from the veto. This ultimately perpetuates feelings of distrust for elected officials and apathy for voting and reinforces the idea that state leaders are protecting the interests of some over all.
The right to vote can both enhance lives and build communities. Knowing this, I was proud to sponsor House Bill 980. I was proud to have had 50 of my House colleagues co-sponsor this important piece of legislation. I was proud that this bill received bipartisan support in the House Ways and Means Committee and received bipartisan support on the House Floor. I am grateful that Sen. Joan Carter Conway led the way on the Senate side with the companion bill. This legislation had the opportunity to restore voting rights to over 40,000 ex-offenders.
In representative democracy, the right to vote is a fundamental interest. When folks have their access to the ballot box restricted, they lose their ability to have a voice in the decision making process. These folks are our neighbors, our friends, and even our family members. These folks have children who attend our schools. These folks care about when the recreation centers are closing. They care about high unemployment rates or cuts to program funding. They pay taxes just like the rest of us. Yet ex-offenders are systematically denied the right to vote until after any parole or probation is served.
At a time when some elections are decided by margins of less than 50 votes, it is all the more important to allow as much participation as possible. In the 2014 election cycle in Prince George's County there was a county council primary election decided by six votes, in Baltimore County there was a House primary election decided by 34 votes, and in Southern Maryland there was a House general election decided by 76 votes. If our goal is to elect the best public servants, how can we leave anyone out of the conversation? By expanding voting rights we can help move toward that end. House Bill 980 also makes administration of the law much simpler. If we can see you, you can vote — the wisdom of this approach cannot go unstated. There are those who may disagree with this measure — and those concerns do not go unheard. The point of this measure is the recognition that we all make poor choices at times, but what matters is what we do to lift ourselves up again. This bill gives ex-offenders the tools they need to lift themselves up again.
One powerful moment in the effort to pass House Bill 980 was hearing the testimony of Perry Hopkins before the House Ways and Means Committee. Mr. Hopkins, an ex-offender and father who served over a decade in prison, discussed how he was giving back to the community after his release. When Mr. Hopkins spoke about the 2008 election — an historic election by any measure — he also explained how he was not able to feel the same joy as everyone else in his community after the first African American president was elected. There was complete silence in the room when Mr. Hopkins invited us to imagine when his grandchildren will ask him about his experience in 2008, and how he would have to explain to them that he was not able to participate in the electoral process.
That is why House Bill 980 was so important: It provided clarity where the current law creates confusion, it expanded opportunity where the current law prevents opportunity, it encouraged participation where the current law facilitates recidivism. So much for change.
Cory McCray is a Maryland delegate representing Northeast and East Baltimore City; email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Alonzo Washington is the 1st vice chair of the Legislative Black Caucus of Maryland and a Maryland delegate representing Prince Georges County; email: email@example.com. Both are Democrats.