Maryland Dems Considers Extending Voting Rights to Incarcerated Felon

Maryland lawmakers are debating a bill that would grant voting rights to individuals currently incarcerated with felony convictions. While existing law requires the Maryland Board of Elections to provide ballot drop boxes inside the state’s correction and detention facilities, incarcerated felons are currently prohibited from voting alongside other inmates.

The proposed legislation, known as the Voting Rights for All Act, introduced by Del. Jheanelle Wilkins (D-Montgomery County), seeks to eliminate the requirement for felons to wait until their release from prison before being able to vote.

“The overall point of this bill is that when someone is serving time, that’s their punishment. The right to vote should not be a punishment or privilege for people, it is a right that people have. Not an additional punishment for the crime,” Del. Wilkins stated.

While there has been evolving agreement in Annapolis over the concept of felon voting access, consensus on when access should be granted by the state has not been as straightforward. In 2015, then-Governor Larry Hogan vetoed a bill that would have granted voting access to felons upon completion of their court-imposed sentences, citing the need to “achieve the proper balance between repayment of obligations to society for a felony conviction and the restoration of the various restricted rights.” However, state lawmakers later overrode his veto in a largely party-line vote.

Voting access for felons has also become a topic in Maryland’s U.S. Senate contest this November. Rep. David Trone’s (D-Md.) campaign highlighted his co-sponsorship of the Democracy Restoration Act, stating that “Congressman Trone has been a strong advocate for ensuring [voting] rights are afforded to every American – including those who have repaid their debt to society after serving time in prison.”

While the bill is expected to have a limited fiscal impact on the state, it does call for the creation of a “Voting Rights Ombudsman for Incarcerated Individuals” within the state’s corrections department. This position would mediate voting access disputes and assist in facilitating voting for incarcerated individuals.

House Minority Leader Jason Buckel (R-Allegany County) slammed the initiative, stating, “We believe that allowing incarcerated murderers, rapists, gang leaders and violent felons to vote for those who write the laws that govern their incarceration is frankly absurd.”

Supporters of the bill, such as Nicole Porter of The Sentencing Project, view it as a civil rights matter. Porter argued that Maryland’s current law unfairly disenfranchises actively incarcerated felons, who are already subjected to numerous restrictions and oversight within the prison system.

“They have to ask correctional officials for any sort of liberties within the prison, to even go shower or around any other things that adults take for granted that are living in the free community,” Porter said.

While acknowledging the challenges of staying informed about community affairs from within prison, Porter believes that engaging convicts in the civic process can promote public safety and benefit the community.

Currently, 21 states bar incarcerated individuals from voting, while Maine and Vermont allow all residents to vote regardless of criminal status.