In a typical Friday garbage dump, Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, a Republican, vetoed a bill that would have re-enfranchised 40,000 previously incarcerated Marylanders currently on probation or parole. These are citizens that have already served their time, yet still are refused a basic promise of American democracy.
Maryland is far from alone in despicably refusing many of its citizens the right to vote. Almost 6 million Americans are systematically denied voting rights due to the criminal justice system. These Americans are disproportionately African Americans. Constituting 30 percent of the population in Maryland, blacks comprise 65 percent of those denied the right to vote. Nationally, more than 8 percent of all African Americans are currently disenfranchised, compared to about 2 percent of whites.
This systemic disenfranchisement is tinged with a violent history of racism and oppression. Like the poll taxes and grandfather clauses of yore, and now prison disenfranchisement and voter ID laws, each new system is designed as a workaround to keep the “wrong” Americans from voting.
Voting is one of the few and most powerful tools for channeling voices that create change. What kind of message do we send to recently released inmates when we prevent them from having that voice? It is telling that Freddie Gray’s West Baltimore neighborhood, the epicenter of ongoing protests, has the highest disenfranchisement rate in Maryland. These protests are born out of a deep frustration with the system, one that actively muffles voices and silences those who most need to speak out.
But this isn’t the end. There has been a shift in American politics from “tough on crime” to overhauling a broken criminal justice system. Our massive incarcerated population has finally plateaued, and a number of states have significantly cut their prison populations. A national movement for restoring voting rights is achieving significant gains, with a 2014 Sentencing Project report noting that 23 states have amended felony disenfranchisement policies and made more than 800,000 additional citizens eligible to vote. We are also seeing significant gains in the past year, with Virginia restoring voting rights to more than 5,000 citizens and significant movements in Minnesota, Kentucky, and Connecticut.
A lot of work remains to be done. Forty-eight states continue to restrict prisoner voter rights in some way. This includes four states that restrict voter rights until after parole, and 20 states that continue disenfranchisement past probation.
There is a solution that would re-enfranchise the incarcerated and formerly incarcerated in all states. The Voting Rights Amendment, introduced in Congress this past January, sets out very simple text that would immediately grant over 6 million Americans their long overdue right to vote:
SECTION 1. Every citizen of the United States, who is of legal voting age, shall have the fundamental right to vote in any public election held in the jurisdiction in which the citizen resides.
SECTION 2. Congress shall have the power to enforce and implement this article by appropriate legislation.
A powerful coalition of politicians, organizations, and ordinary Americans recognize and support voting rights. If you do as well, be sure to sign a petition of support for the Right to Vote Amendment and learn more here. While Governor Hogan’s veto is disappointing, it is not the last word on this issue. Far from it.