Although most returning citizens in Maryland are allowed to vote, proposed legislation would require that those convicted of a felony receive voter information before being released from prison.
The legislation seeks to mandate the state’s Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services provide a voter registration form, voting requirements and other information before an inmate is released.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Cheryl Kagan (D-Montgomery County), will be discussed at a public hearing Tuesday, Jan. 28 before the Senate’s Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee.
The House Ways and Means Committee reviewed the bill Thursday, Jan. 16 sponsored by Del. J. Sandy Bartlett (D-Anne Arundel County).
“There are many individuals walking on the street who don’t know they have their rights restored,” Bartlett said. “This bill will at least be more proactive and supply the voter registration information because the law states we must do so.”
The bill doesn’t allow voting rights for those convicted of a felony currently serving court-ordered sentences; individuals diagnosed with a mental disability unable to comprehend “a desire to participate in the voting process;” and a person convicted of buying or selling votes.
Del. Jason Buckel (R-Alleghany County) read a portion of the Department of Corrections’ regulations that claims the agency posts notices for inmates, offers absentee ballots and receive voter information while incarcerated.
“It seems to me that we are already bending over backwards to notify people who are already incarcerated that they have these rights,” he said. “Is this really going to have any impact? If someone wants to vote, they have the right to vote.”
Criminal justice reform advocates and activists have said both the state correctional institutions and board of election office don’t offer enough assistance for returning citizens.
Stephen Buckingham explained his client encountered problems during a visit to the Frederick County Board of Elections office.
Buckingham, an attorney who serves as lay community minister and chair with the Unitarian Universalist Legislative Ministry of Maryland, said his client got released from prison six years ago and still hasn’t received documentation to show he’s a free man and can vote.
“He doesn’t have the papers to say, ‘you are now released.’” Buckingham said. “This is a real problem, folks. This man needs to have his life back.”
Similar legislation has been crafted by the ACLU of Maryland and other organizations, which hosted an “Expand the Ballot” town hall Monday, Jan. 20 at Lanham United Methodist Church in Lanham to present the proposed bill and discuss voting rights for returning citizens and those currently incarcerated.
The legislation seeks to direct the state department of corrections work in conjunction with state and local board of election offices and create a voter information program.
The bill would require the state Board of Elections to incorporate a program for returning citizens and inmates such as disseminating voter information at least 30 days prior to the registration deadline. Eligible inmates are those convicted of misdemeanor offenses or who are being held pretrial without a conviction.
According to the ACLU, Blacks represent 70 percent of the prison population in Maryland but are 31 percent of the overall state populace. About one-third, or an average of 8,000, of those incarcerated are from Baltimore City.
Tierra Bradford, policy manager for Common Cause Maryland, said a mandate must be established.
“Policies like the one [Bartlett] is trying to implement and policies like the one we’re trying to implement are necessary for people who are eligible to vote [and] are giving a chance to vote,” said Bradford, whose organization also helped craft the bill with the ACLU. “I’m concerned that there’s no implementation of a policy [from the state department of corrections.]”
Bartlett said she’s open to compromise and work with the group’s bill “because it doesn’t conflict with what the ACLU is doing. More people registered to vote, the better.”