CommunityWilliam J. Ford

Efforts Intensify for Incarcerated Citizens’ Right to Vote

Legislative Delays Could Eliminate Thousands As Election Draws Near

With electronic errors, long lines and voters who received late mail-in ballots during Maryland’s special Congressional and June primary elections a thing of the past, advocates have now shifted their attention to an equally challenging task: making sure those incarcerated can participate in the Nov. 3 general election.

Three nonprofit organizations, Out For Justice, Common Cause Maryland and the ACLU of Maryland, continue to coordinate a statewide project which seeks to compile lists of eligible voters from the majority of the state’s county jails.

“We are not confidence that any of our individuals behind the walls have access to the ballot and we don’t have proof that they did,” said Nicole Hanson-Mundell, executive director of Out For Justice, an advocacy organization based in Baltimore that helps former and current incarcerated individuals.

“We are crafting the [voter information] packets into local detention centers across the state. We can’t go through this boxed-type process every election cycle.”

Nikki Charlson, deputy state administrator for state Board of Elections, acknowledged the advocates’ groundbreaking efforts in implementing this process as it’s usually done on a local level.

Charlson said once the state receives a list, it will count the number of people from each detention center, then mail packets of information with a letter explaining voter eligibility, how to vote, a voter registration form to request a mail-in ballot and a self-addressed stamped envelope.

Once voter registration forms are returned, the votes will be counted, she said.

The state Board of Elections has a system that can flag if a person has a current felony conviction which would make that person ineligible to vote. Individuals convicted for buying or selling votes cannot register.

“I think the fact that we are doing this mailing shows our commitment to making sure that the eligible voters behind the wall are being able to participate in the process,” Charlson said. “State and local election officials are working diligently to prepare a safe election for voters.”

The state Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services department of corrections provided not only a list of eligible voters to the Board of Elections from the Baltimore jails but also the names of 2,743 currently housed at state prisons and other facilities.

“However, the Department is not in any way able to track or determine who actually votes,” said Mark Vernarelli, corrections spokesman, in an email Tuesday.

In a separate emailed statement Thursday, Aug. 27, the agency’s policy requires each correctional facility to display signs on whether an inmate needs a legal representative to complete a voter application or mail-in ballot, deadlines to return forms and other voter information.

“The department had previous procedures in place to ensure the incarcerated population is able to exercise the right to vote,” according to the statement. “However, Secretary [Robert L.] Green recognized the need to codify and refine the policy to ensure consistency throughout the department’s correctional facilities.”

Maryland has about four million registered voters with census data showing the state’s Black population stands at 31%. However, the Justice Policy Institute of Northwest published a report in November that noted the state in 2018 recorded the highest number of Blacks incarcerated in the nation at more than 70%.

To ensure those incarcerated aren’t forgotten, state Sen. Cory McCray (D-Baltimore City) penned an Aug. 12 letter to Election Administrator Linda Lamone with a few directives including: request a list of eligible voters from the two city jails managed by the state department of correctional services; send absentee ballots directly to each eligible voter; and provide inmates voter registration deadlines and when to cast a ballot.

McCray said in an interview Thursday some 700 are eligible to vote at the two city jails and voter information will be sent to them. He admitted responsibility to constantly educate both the public and state officials about the importance of ensuring that the incarcerated be allowed the right to vote.

The assistance of diverse administrators further helps, McCray said, who sponsored legislation in 2015 as a delegate for returning citizens on parole or probation to vote which affected about 40,000 people. Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed the bill but the legislature overrode his veto in 2016, making it become law.

“A lot of the people that are in decision-making positions have not lived the life that we’ve lived. They have never spent one day…as a Black man or Black woman,” McCray said. “I am not defending them but they clearly want to do the right thing and may not know how to do the right thing. We must educate the masses to make sure they’re woke and make sure they are concise about the decisions that are in front of them.”

He received assistance from Monica Roebuck, a member of the Prince George’s County Board of Elections. She also serves on a voter protection committee with the Maryland Democratic Party. McCray serves as first vice chair of the party.

When the county assesses how many incarcerated individuals may be eligible to vote, Roebuck said a list must be sent and approved by the state.

“For too long, this population has been overlooked. No more,” she said. “We have so much work to do.”

The Prince George’s state’s attorney’s office continues to work on “Operation Protect the Vote for All” to assess and determine eligible voters with the county Department of Corrections and state Board of Elections.

‘They are Still Citizens’

The Sentencing Project, a national criminal justice advocacy organization in Northwest, published a report in May to highlight about 482,000 out of 745,000, or 64 percent, of individuals incarcerated in 2017 were held on pretrial status.

The group notes the majority of the 263,000 received a misdemeanor conviction.

“Despite the fact that most persons detained in jail are eligible to vote, very few actually do,” according to the Sentencing Project report. “Jail administrators often lack knowledge about voting law and bureaucratic obstacles to establishing a voting process within institutions contribute significantly to limited voter participation.”

Here are a few recommendations the group cites for local and state lawmakers:

– Establish jail polling locations;

– Require county jail voter registration plans;

– Authorize special status for incarcerated voters; and

– Designate a jail voting coordinator.

In Maryland, one bill failed to become approved due to the shortened session in Annapolis caused by COVID-19.

Del. Nick Mosby (D-Baltimore City) and Sen. Chris West (R-Baltimore County) presented legislation in their respective chambers that would’ve required each correctional facility to disseminate voter information to each eligible person incarcerated. In addition, legislation called for mandating the state Board of Elections to disseminate certain voting materials to each and for the state Department of Corrections to provide a voter registration application and other information for those released.

Meanwhile, some lawmakers and criminal justice and voting advocates suggest ending the trend toward increased mass incarceration because it can save states money.

According to fiscal year 2018 data, the average cost to house each person incarcerated in the more than two dozen state facilities cost nearly $46,000. The average length of stay lasted slightly more than two years.

Although the COVID-19 pandemic hampered in-person events, that hasn’t stop Hanson-Mundell with Out For Justice to use word of mouth, post fliers on social media and other means of communication to help returning citizens and those incarcerated. Her group either coordinated or participated this year in events on voter registration, the 2020 Census and recruit election judges and will participate in a statewide voter registration effort for incarcerated individuals Sept. 22, the same day as National Voter Registration Day.

“We care about making sure that all eligible people have the right to vote,” she said. “They are still citizens and deserve to be treated as such.”

 

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William J. Ford – Washington Informer Staff Writer

I decided I wanted to become a better writer while attending Bowie State University and figured that writing for the school newspaper would help. I’m not sure how much it helped, but I enjoyed it so much I decided to keep on doing it, which I still thoroughly enjoy 20 years later. If I weren’t a journalist, I would coach youth basketball. Actually, I still play basketball, or at least try to play, once a week. My kryptonite is peanut butter. What makes me happy – seeing my son and two godchildren grow up. On the other hand, a bad call made by an official during a football or basketball game makes me throw up my hands and scream. Favorite foods include pancakes and scrambled eggs which I could eat 24-7. The strangest thing that’s ever happened to me, or more accurately the most painful, was when I was hit by a car on Lancaster Avenue in Philadelphia. If I had the power or money to change the world, I’d make sure everyone had three meals a day. And while I don’t have a motto or favorite quote, I continue to laugh which keeps me from driving myself crazy. You can reach me several ways: Twitter @jabariwill, Instagram will_iam.ford2281 or e-mail, wford@washingtoninformer.com

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