Ex-offenders and the right to vote in Md.

These are probably frightening words to anyone who wants to maintain the political status quo: "I have a criminal record. I pledge to vote in 2016 elections because I care about my neighborhood and want to add my voice to improve everyone's quality of life."

Let's just suppose that a significant barrier to voting in Maryland is removed Feb. 5th and residents with felony convictions are allowed to vote as soon as they leave prison, rather than having to wait until they complete community supervision requirements.


"We're talking about infusing maybe 40,000 voters into the democratic process," says Perry Hopkins, a community organizer who has been ubiquitous on this issue as well as on the untenable conditions that led city housing officials to agree to pay up to $8 million to settle sexual harassment claims brought by some of its public housing tenants.

Most of these ex-felons are Baltimore residents, and we know that Baltimore is a city whose voters register overwhelmingly Democratic. So suppose, in response to registration campaigns underway, a lot of those ex-felons in Baltimore pledge to "vote in 2016 elections" as Mr. Hopkins employer, Communities United, is urging.


Why would Republicans go along with such a monumental shift in voting law?

Of course, given a history of not exactly being icons of conformity, these potential voters are not necessarily Democratic Party sycophants, going along to get along, as it were. So maybe some Democrats, more concerned about remaining in office rather than the people who put them in office, might be quietly wary of rushing a new class of voters onto the rolls.

When you get right down to it, these are more likely the considerations that state senators are grappling with as they decide whether to join the House of Delegates in overriding Gov. Larry Hogan's veto of a bill that would permit people on parole or probation to vote in Maryland.

Of course, no one will say that.

Proponents say this is a matter of equity and justice, of doing the right thing to smooth the re-entry of thousands of people who have done their time and are now looking to get on with their lives. Joining a national trend, the governor has acknowledged that too many "collateral consequences" stemming from the war on drugs keep ex-offenders from gainful employment. He has appointed a committee to review what the American Bar Association estimates to be more than 1,000 strictures on Maryland's ex-offenders.

But he does not believe that the voting rights legislation "achieves the proper balance between repayment of obligations to society for a felony conviction and the restoration of the various restricted rights."

What about taxation without representation? That's the question that ex-felons and their advocates raise. Right now working men and women deemed responsible enough to earn supervised release from prison pay their taxes and take on other social responsibilities — but cannot vote.

"The notion of perpetual punishment looms very large," observes Gregory Carpenter, who returned home from prison 21 years ago and now co-owns 2 AM Bakery on Woodlawn Drive. In addition to turning out pastries, he trains other ex-offenders for jobs in the industry.

Mr. Carpenter understands the argument that people under the supervision of correction officers are still technically not "free," but he looks at how restoration of voting rights will go a long way toward easing the sense of isolation and helplessness that ex-offenders have, assuring that fewer of them will end up back behind bars.

Mr. Hopkins, himself an ex-offender who recently obtained a voter registration card, considers current Maryland law "a further effort at voter suppression" — not unlike schemes in Texas and North Carolina to make it more difficult for poor people, elderly people and even college students to register. The issue is just "one of the barriers that we intend on tackling," he says.

Of course, some opponents still see ex-offenders as menaces to society. "The Republicans are trying to make this a public safety issue. They are trying to make it a criminal justice issue," says Mr. Hopkins. "But they are not keeping it in the area in which it should be. It's a democratic issue."

And so it is.


An override requires 29 senators to vote yes. Anticipating victory, Mr. Hopkins says, "The minute that this comes into law, there's a bunch of people that can't to wait to register to vote. The numbers of registered voters is going to increase."

In this democracy, that should not be a scary proposition.

E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Email: er.shipp@aol.com.

Recommended on Baltimore Sun