In 2002, voting rights advocates in Maryland were able to do something that had never been done in the Free State of Mary’s Land – repeal a lifetime ban on voting for those formerly convicted of a felony. The Jim Crow era law, ingrained in the state’s constitution since 1851, was a way to continue to ensure the “wrong people” did not have the ability to cast their ballot in local elections.
But the start of the 21st century brought a renewed effort on voting rights laws that disproportionately disenfranchised people of color specifically, and this push by a grassroots coalition of advocates known as the Maryland Voting Rights Restoration Coalition showed that with a little legislative finesse, anything was possible. The problem with this new law was the complexity of its language, which restored voting rights to those convicted of a felony, and only one felony, while also forcing them to wait three-years after the completion of their court-ordered sentence.
This meant that those responsible for enforcing the law were now burdened with the reality of having to interpret the meaning of this new policy, something that had been lost on 21 of the 24 county board of elections (including Baltimore City’s BOE), according to a survey conducted by the group two years after the law was passed. So the group fought to amend the new law with a more streamlined policy that made understanding simple: give those previously convicted of a felony, regardless of how many felonies they have, the ability to register to vote once they have completed their court-ordered sentence.
Simple enough? That it was, and after four years of fighting for its passage, advocates renewed their push in 2007 with a new title for the bill, and two new sponsors in the House and the Senate. This enabled the group to achieve success with the passage of the Voter Registration Protection Act of 2007, enabling those who have completed their sentence the ability to register to vote without having to wait through an arbitrary three-year waiting period. And yet, three years after its passage eighteen of the 24 offices of the Board of Elections still did not know that the law had changed, thereby continuing to disenfranchise formerly convicted felons from accessing their right to vote.
And for years advocates worked to try and educate the members of the BOE on the new law, while also trying to get them to work collaboratively with the Department of Corrections to offer those being released from incarceration and/or completing their court-ordered sentence a voter registration form and detailed information showing that they now had their right to vote. But many still alluded to the 2002 law, forcing them to prove that they have completed the three-year waiting period, while others just were not sure if that law enabled them to vote with more than one felony conviction.
So then in 2015, an even simpler solution was presented: restore the voting rights to those previously incarcerated for a felony conviction upon release from incarceration. This made the interpretation of the law simple: if you were home you could vote! It didn’t matter how felony convictions you had on your record, or whether or not you completed your court-ordered sentence, was still on parole or probation or waited some stupid three-year period of time. And while the Governor vetoed this progressive policy, those in the House and the Senate decided to override his veto in 2016, making Maryland’s voting rights law quite simple to interpret.
Also lost on “election experts” was the fact that despite the felony disenfranchisement laws, those currently incarcerated either awaiting trial and not yet convicted of a crime, as well as those convicted of only a misdemeanor crime, were still able to register to vote, even while Behind the Walls. So members of VOICE, Voters Organized for the Integrity of City Elections, took the BOE to court in Baltimore City in 2016, highlighting the fact that those incarcerated were not being given the ability to register to vote, or given access to absentee ballots in order to cast their vote while incarcerated.
These combined efforts enabled advocates to have an easier educational campaign to launch, or so they thought?
Just last week, a self-described “voting rights advocate” and member of the Board of Elections in Prince George’s County, Monica Roebuck, misspoke at a press conference sponsored by the PG County State’s Attorney’s Office in a voting effort they were a part of. Speaking to the laws that currently govern those formerly and currently incarcerated, Ms. Roebuck stated that “those who have completed their court-ordered sentence” had the ability to vote this November, which is the old law.
This misinterpretation of the law infuriated advocates such as Nicole Hanson-Mundell, Executive Director of Out for Justice, causing another obstacle for her and her colleagues to overcome when trying to educate those formerly incarcerated that they have the right to vote. She says that even members of the state board of elections were not clear on the current law, which she helped to address as a member of their advisory board – which Ms. Roebuck is also a part of.
“Given the importance of the upcoming election, it was frustrating to hear State’s Attorney Aisha Braveboy and Board of Elections Member Monica Roebuck provide inaccurate and misleading information to Maryland residents about voting during their news conference,” says Hanson-Mundell. “Unfortunately, Ms. Roebuck – a member of the Board of Elections – misquoted the actual law, causing unintentional voter suppression by confusing Prince George’s residents who need to know that once they are released from incarcerated for a felony conviction, their right to vote is restored.”
Nicole says that had it not been for the efforts of her organization, along with Qiana Johnson from Life After Release and Monica Cooper from Maryland Justice Project (all three formerly incarcerated activists), the efforts being undertaken by the State Board of Election during this election wouldn’t be getting done. She pointed to their efforts to have the SBE craft voter education packets to be mailed to every eligible voter Behind the Walls prior to the November 3rd General Election, informing them of their right to vote.
“The sad reality is that while it took them decades to finally restore voting rights to those of formerly incarcerated, the continue to withhold our human rights and alienate us from having a voice in these processes, deciding instead to try and duplicate the work that we do while not having a real understanding of what it is they are talking about, as we witnessed with Ms. Roebuck just last week,” says Hanson-Mundell. “If you want to get this thing right, let those of us who are directly impacted by these policies take the lead on ensuring their implementation; otherwise we will have laws that look good on paper but are worthless in practice given that those responsible for enforcing them don’t have a clue as to what’s going on.”