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Disenfranchisement News: Maryland Legislature Approves Voting Rights for People on Probation & Parole

April 10, 2015
Maryland legislature approves voting rights bill for people on probation and parole, Minnesota voting rights bill appears stalled, and more in our latest Disenfranchisement News.

Disenfranchisement News is a monthly electronic newsletter produced by The Sentencing Project. To receive the newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.

Maryland legislature approves voting rights bill for people on probation and parole

Both the Maryland Senate and House recently approved a measure to allow people to register to vote as soon as they are released from prison. Under current law, Marylanders must complete both their prison and community supervision sentence — which can take years to decades to complete — before they are allowed to vote.

Nicole Porter, Director of Advocacy at The Sentencing Project, testified at the Maryland House Ways and Means Committee in support of the bill earlier this year. Porter said, “Voting for persons with felony convictions appears to be part of a package of pro-social behavior that is linked to desistance from crime and can improve public safety.” Other proponents included representatives of Maryland’s Communities United, the Brennan Center, and Center for Popular Democracy. If the bill is signed into law by Republican Governor Larry Hogan, it will restore voting rights to an estimated 40,000 Marylanders.

fd news MD testimony

Minnesota voting rights bill appears stalled

Despite a broad coalition of bipartisan support, a measure to expand voting rights to people on probation and parole failed to get a hearing in front of the House Public Safety Committee before the deadline last month—even though the bill’s chief author, Republican Rep. Tony Cornish, is the committee’s chairman. “Until everybody is comfortable having a hearing, I’m not going to force the bill down their throat,” Cornish said. “But I’m looking forward to it if it happens.”

The bill passed through Senate committees and awaits a floor vote there. However, Senate Majority Leader Tom Bakk said he is unlikely to push for a Senate vote if he thinks the House is not going to move on the bill.

U.S. lawmakers introduce bill to restore voting rights after prison

U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) and U.S. Rep. John Conyers (D-MI) recently introduced the Democracy Restoration Act, which would give every citizen the right to vote in federal elections, unless they are incarcerated for a felony at the time the election takes place. According to the findings listed in the bill, the variation in state disenfranchisement laws “leads to an unfair disparity and unequal participation in federal elections based solely on where a person lives.”

Of the 5.8 million people barred from voting due to a felony conviction, only 25 percent are in prison. “You’ve done your time in prison, now you’re living in the community. You’re expected to abide by the rules of society, pay your taxes, get a job… It’s counter-productive to the community at large for us to essentially be treating people as second-class citizens,” said Marc Mauer, Executive Director of The Sentencing Project.

The bill also notes that state disenfranchisement policies disproportionately impact people of color, resulting in 1 in every 13 African Americans barred from voting—a rate four times greater than non-African Americans.

Last month, U.S. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) and U.S. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) introduced the Civil Rights Voting Restoration Act, which would restore federal voting rights only for people convicted of non-violent crimes.

Election newspaper distributed to Australian prisons and locked hospitals

Before last month’s New South Wales election, a community-based advocacy group, Justice Action, distributed a special election edition of their JUST US newspaper to 15,000 people in prisons and locked hospitals in Australia.

In 2007, the Australian High Court struck down a blanket ban on prison voting, and ruled that people serving a prison sentence of less than three years are eligible to vote behind bars. In 2007 and 2011, Justice Action successfully argued in Supreme Court cases that authorities should be required to give people in institutions access to outside publications to allow them to make an informed vote.

The recent newsletter outlined each political party’s position on a number of issues of particular significance to people in prisons and hospitals. “The publication ensures that specific information reaches those voters who are totally controlled by the laws formed in Parliament,” said Justice Action Coordinator Brett Collins.

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