Civil Rights Activists in Baltimore Want More Ex-Felons in the Voting Booth in 2016
In the wake of the Freddie Gray protests that made race relations in Baltimore national news, some locals are determined to expand voting rights for former prisoners.
Perry Hopkins, a 54-year-old ex-felon living in Baltimore, remembers how he felt the night Barack Obama was elected in 2008.
"Everyone was running around rejoicing that we had just elected our first African American president," he told me. "But I was left with a very empty feeling." Someone stopped in front of Hopkins, looked at him, and asked, "Well, did you vote?"
Hopkins had not. In fact, he'd never seen the inside of a voting booth in his life.
Last month, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan vetoed a bill that would have granted Hopkins and 40,000 Maryland ex-felons like him the right to vote when they return home from prison, rather than having to wait until after their probation and parole sentences have ended. Though other states place even more restrictions upon ex-cons voting, in the wake of protests and rallies following the death of Freddie Gray, and amid an ongoing national conversation about racism and police brutality, the governor's veto hits the local African American community particularly hard. Nearly two thirds of those who can't vote because of a felony conviction in Maryland are black, more than a third of Maryland's state prison population comes from Baltimore, and Gray's Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood has the highest incarceration rate in the state.
Yet the connections between disenfranchisement, violence, poverty, and brutality are drawn all too infrequently.
"They're trying to cheat me out of history again," Hopkins said in reference to the 2016 election. "In my heart of hearts, I believe we may have the first female president of the United Stands, and this law will deny more than 40,000 Marylanders the opportunity to participate in that election."
Twenty-four-year-old Delano Handy has been on parole and probation since he was 18. As a result, he's never cast a ballot. "I want the right to vote for me and everyone else because if we're allowed to pay taxes, why aren't we allowed to vote and have a say in what you do with the money?" he asked.
Handy is involved with activists like Hopkins through Communities United, an organization that helps empower low and moderate income Maryland and DC residents to work on social justice issues. Over the past several months, Handy has gone door to door to get Baltimore residents to sign petitions in support of the voting rights bill. Out4Justice has also led legislative workshops all over Maryland for ex-offenders—teaching them how to call their legislators, organize one another, lobby in the state capitol of Annapolis, and more.
"Part of our mission is helping returning citizens learn how to advocate for themselves, and we also want to change the perception of what people think returning citizens look and sound like," Hanson explained.
Diamonte Brown, the director of Out4Justice, told me they've trained about 200 people through these workshops.
In the wake of Governor Hogan's veto, reformers are working alongside #BlackLivesMatter activists in hopes of building up support for a legislative override in January. "So many of the people that can't vote are the same people affected by police brutality," said John P. Comer, the co-director of Communities United. "We are out in the same neighborhoods as the uprising and we continuously organize the same people who marched for Freddie Gray."
On August 6—the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act—Communities United will be holding a rally to protest Hogan's veto and push for an override. The group is also focusing on public outreach, voter registration, and turning massive numbers of people out to the polls.
"I'll be honest, I spent two days in depression over the veto," Hopkins said. "I went through a lot of different emotions, from rage to anger to depression to helplessness and hopelessness."
Now, Hopkins added, he's at a place where he's more committed than ever. "Hogan won that battle, but this is war."
"I think being able to vote would do a whole lot for these young guys on parole... Right now they think nobody is going to listen to them, and feel as though what they say don't matter." –Stephen Taylor
Governor Hogan told legislative leaders that the current law, which enfranchises felons only when parole and probation are up, "achieves the proper balance between repayment of obligations to society for a felony conviction and the restoration of the various restricted rights." (Hogan's office declined VICE's request for further comment.)
But the politician is going up against a growing body of research that suggests removing voting restrictions earlier offers critical benefits to ex-cons.
Carl Wicklund, executive director of the American Probation and Parole Association (APPA), which represents 40,000 people in pretrial, probation, parole, and community corrections, testified in support of the Maryland bill's passage. There is "no credible evidence that continuing to disenfranchise people who have rejoined the community serves any legitimate law enforcement purpose," Wicklund said. Moreover, the APPA argues civic participation is integral to successful rehabilitation and reintegration efforts. Given that voting remains the most potent symbol of participation in our democracy and civil society, restoring that right for ex-felons represents a powerful demonstration of civic redemption. Wicklund also cites one recent study that finds voting within a package of pro-social behavior that is linked to a decrease in crime.
Tomas Lopez, counsel for the Democracy Program at NYU's Brennan Center, who also testified in support of the Maryland bill, points out that disenfranchisement laws may depress voter turnout even among people who are eligible to vote. Since voting is a learned activity, something young people are encouraged to do by watching their parents, the next generation stands to lose quite a lot when the adults around them are unable to cast a ballot. Removing these restrictions, in other words, would impact not only the 40,000 Maryland residents who are currently disenfranchised, but could affect their families and neighbors, too.
Getting involved in the political process to push for this bill is already helping some ex-offenders in Baltimore reintegrate into public life. Stephen Taylor, a 46-year-old ex-felon who has been out of prison since 2007, was rallying in support of the voting rights legislation earlier this year when he started getting calls from guys in his neighborhood asking what he was doing. Once Taylor explained what he was up to, they all started asking how they could get involved. "I think being able to vote would do a whole lot for these young guys on parole," he said. "Because right now they think nobody is going to listen to them, and feel as though what they say don't matter."
Opponents of Maryland's bill insist that ex-felons haven't fully repaid their debt to society. Delegate Neil Parrott, a Western Maryland Republican, led an organized protest in the form of an online letter-writing campaign urging the governor to veto the bill. "They haven't earned back the right to vote yet," Parrott declared.
But given that civic participation has been linked to reduced recidivism—and the United States' long history of instating voting restrictions to prevent blacks from voting—those arguments look thinner by the day.
"We will win the override in January," said Nicole Hanson. "If we don't, well, that will be the governor's last time being governor."
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