MD: Success in Voting Rights Restoration and Difficulties in Research

By: Mengxin (Esther) Cui

After a lengthy effort, Marylanders with felony convictions finally regained their voting rights automatically upon completion of their sentences. Unlike most states that automatically restore voting rights to people upon completion of their sentences, Maryland’s new policy does not require people to complete terms of probation or parole before restoring their right to vote (with the one exception that those convicted of buying or selling votes never regain eligibility to register to vote).  This change in Maryland’s policy followed the state legislature’s veto override on February 9, 2016.  Around 40,000 people are the beneficiaries of this override.

It was a long way for the Maryland legislature to arrive to this point. The chorus calling for restoring voting rights grew louder and louder since 2015.  In April 2015, the proposed SB 340/HB 980 became the heart of the discussion, with support from both parties and a vocal coalition that backed reform.  However, on May 22, 2015, Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed HB 980, meaning that the 40,000 Marylanders whose rights were restored after its initial passage had their right to vote revoked. This result frustrated many. “This ultimately perpetuates feelings of distrust for elected officials and apathy for voting and reinforces the idea that state leaders are protecting the interests of some over all,” Cory McCray wrote in the Baltimore Sun. There was also a backlash after Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto. “That’s part of my legacy, that’s what I have to pass on,” said Perry Hopkins, 54, cited by The Baltimore Sun. “I had to stand on the sidelines and watch history. I couldn’t participate,” explained Hopkins, who said he has several felony charges. Hopkins hopes to convince the governor that if an ex-offender is considered safe enough to live in society, he or she deserves to participate in it fully.

With a vote in the House on January 21, 2016 and another in the Senate on February 9, Maryland’s legislature voted to override Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto, and as a result, 40,000 Marylanders regained their voting rights immediately. Many people considered the override a big success. However, some people cast doubt immediately. “Republican delegates argued…that felons have committed crimes such as murder, rape and human trafficking, and should complete their full sentence—including parole and probation—before regaining the right to vote,” Pamela Wood wrote in The Baltimore Sun.

But understanding the true impact of this back and forth is very difficult. This post’s author has tried to find specific statistical information about who had their rights restored and how many affected people registered to vote after their rights were restored. After quite a bit of searching, the answer seems to be that there is no good way to figure out how many former felons are registering to vote. This is in part because Maryland’s voter registration form no longer requires people to identify as ex-felons; they need only affirm under penalty of perjury that they meet the qualifications to register.  Whether lack of information is a good thing or not, there is an argument that keeping people’s felony histories off of voter registration records (a public record in Maryland) is good for privacy and will therefore not hinder people from registering to vote. However, it did burden this student researcher who wanted to find out more about how Marylanders with felony conviction histories have reacted to their newfound ability to vote.

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