In 2004, Antoine Lewis was excited to turn eighteen and have the opportunity to cast his ballot for the first time in a hotly contested Presidential election. His first trip back to the school he graduated from a year prior, which now served as his neighborhood polling location; Lewis stood in line patiently awaiting his chance to finally cast his ballot.
Two years later, recently convicted of a felony due to the crimes committed by his older brother, Lewis sought to cast his ballot once again for what he saw as the most important gubernatorial contest of his lifetime. However, what he wasn’t aware of when he chose to take the plea agreement offered to him by prosecutors looking to land a quick conviction, was that a felony conviction barred him from voting until three-years following the completion of his court-ordered sentence thanks to a 2002 change in the law that had once permanently disenfranchised felons.
This news discouraged the young but eager formerly registered Democrat, who now found himself alienated from the voting process and questioning both the judicial and the electoral process. But one year later, after voicing his frustrations before a committee of state delegates and senators, his opportunity to cast his ballot was reinstated after the successful passage of the Voter Registration Protection Act of 2007, which restored voting rights to those formerly convicted of a felony after they had completed their court-ordered sentence – something he had done months prior.
Antoine cast his ballot in every election following that powerful piece of legislation until 2015, when he was once again arrested and kept behind bars awaiting trial. He tried requesting an absentee ballot, knowing that while he was incarcerated, having not yet been convicted of crime, he was still a registered voter who was able to cast his ballot in the upcoming election.
Yet, the members of the Board of Election rejected his repeated requests to cast his ballot from Behind the Walls, while the detention center in which he resided either laughed at or completed ignored his weekly attempts at having someone from the facility step up and contact the BOE to inform them of the number of eligible voters they had at the facility. So Antoine reached out to Value My Vote, the group that brought him to Annapolis to testify in 2007, wondering if there was anything they could do to assist him in this frustrating matter.
We wound up suing the BOE, taking them to court in order to have them do what the Maryland Constitution required of them since its inception. And while those efforts weren’t as effective as we would have liked, it did spark a movement that would eventually lead to the grassroots efforts of today, which prompted another change in the voting rights laws that now allows formerly incarcerated felons the ability to vote even while still serving their court-ordered sentence.
So on this National Day of Voter Registration, as others focus on trying to register those who have either ignored, refused or frankly showed little interest in voting; Out for Justice continues to focus on being a voice to the voiceless who continue to be disproportionately disenfranchised but remain eager and willing to register to vote and cast their ballot.
According to state law, while it took decades – and many legislative attempts – to change the law around those formerly convicted of a felony – what has not changed since 1851 is the ability of those incarcerated awaiting trial, or those that have been convicted of a misdemeanor, to register to vote and cast their ballot from Behind the Walls.
The only issue that prevents them from doing this is the miseducation of Maryland voting rights laws, and the inability of those responsible for enforcing those laws to effectively do their job. But despite these shortfalls, OFJ has continued pushing the envelope and educating those formerly and currently incarcerated on their right to vote.
And one of our biggest advocates and lead organizers is Mr. Lewis, who was finally empowered to vote Behind the Walls in late 2015, and then was able to cast his ballot in the 2016 democratic primaries once he came home, still on parole, given the latest legislative success of our Value My Vote campaign.
Hassan Giordano and Nicole Hanson-Mundell
Hassan Giordano is the founder of Value My Vote and the author of the 2007 Voter Registration Protection Act. Nicole Hanson-Mundell is the Executive Director of Out for Justice. Find out more information on your right to vote in Maryland at: www.valuemyvote.today