In January, the General Assembly overrode Governor Larry Hogan's veto of legislation that automatically restores the right to vote to individuals released from prison. As a result, 40,000 formerly incarcerated Marylanders whose voices had been removed from our democracy now have access to the voting booth.
Voting is an essential part of American self-government. But our country has a long history of marginalizing groups of people who are deemed unfit to fully participate in American society: African Americans were systematically blocked from the electoral process until 1965; women remained unable to cast a ballot in many states until 1920. Today, millions of Americans are denied the right to vote because of criminal convictions.
Take Etta Myers, a 62-year-old African American woman from Baltimore, who served 36 years for a wrongful conviction. This year, she will vote for the first time in her life. When asked about the upcoming election, she said she longed "to take part in our democracy and make my voice heard."
Nationally, almost 6 million Americans are barred from voting due to laws that prohibit past offenders from voting, which have been condemned as having "no discernible legitimate purpose." As mass incarceration has ballooned over recent decades, so too have the collateral consequences. Since 1980, there has been a fivefold increase in the number of people who have lost their right to vote due to criminal conviction.
This disenfranchisement has a disproportionate impact on people of color due to racial disparities in our criminal justice system. More than 2.2 million African Americans — 1 in 13 African Americans of voting age nationwide — cannot participate in elections due to a criminal conviction. Latinos and Native Americans are also disenfranchised at higher rates than whites.
In Maryland, African Americans represent 61 percent of those whose voting rights have been restored. Now that ex-offender voting rights have been restored, it appears that candidates are taking their voters' concerns seriously: Earlier this month, Baltimore held a mayoral candidate forum for ex-offenders, where voters could ask the candidates their questions about jobs, affordable housing and other important issues.
Unfortunately, Maryland is more the exception than the rule. Voter disenfranchisement laws vary widely across America. While Maine and Vermont don't disenfranchise even their incarcerated populations, some states permanently bar people with felony convictions from voting. Others wait to restore voting rights until after parole and probation. Virginia Governor McAuliffe just announced on Friday that voting rights are restored for approximately 200,000 Virginians who are no longer in prison or on parole or probation. Yet in Florida, a critical political battleground, nearly one in four African American citizens can't vote due to the state's burdensome ex-offender disenfranchisement law.
These laws are counterproductive to the goals of rebuilding lives and creating safe and healthy communities. Research has consistently shown that recidivism rates drop when voting rights are restored. According to the American Probation and Parole Association, "civic participation is an integral part of this transition because it helps transform one's identity from deviant to law-abiding citizen."
The right to vote is larger than casting a ballot. It is raising your voice to say yes to better public education, say no to placement of highways through the backyards of our communities, yes to better police training and more police accountability, and no to cutting funding for health research and development. Voting is every citizen's right to help choose their representatives, register their policy preferences and have their voices heard at all levels of government.
Maryland has taken a major step forward on the road to justice and equity, joining 13 other states and the District of Columbia in adopting the simple commonsense standard that if you are out of jail, you can vote. It's time for the rest of the nation to do the same.
In addition to restoring ex-offenders' right to vote, departments of correction and election officials should notify these individuals when their rights are restored. Further, state officials should automatically register newly eligible citizens to vote so they can effectuate their rights. At the federal level, Congress should act on Maryland Senator Ben Cardin's Democracy Restoration Act to restore voting rights in federal elections for returning citizens.
In a democracy, we are all political equals. We need every voice — including the formerly incarcerated — to forge our society's future together.
Danyelle Solomon is the Director of Progress 2050 at the Center for American Progress. Liz Kennedy is the Director of Democracy and Government Reform at the Center for American Progress. They may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.