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Government & Politics Justice

State Should Make it Easier for Ex-Felons to Vote, Advocates Say

Perry Hopkins, an organizer with Communities United, speaks at a voting rights news conference in Annapolis on Tuesday. Photo by Bruce DePuyt

Convicted felons who’ve served their sentences can vote in Maryland elections. But the vast majority of them don’t know that they are eligible to cast a ballot, civil rights advocates said on Tuesday.

They are urging the General Assembly to require the Maryland State Board of Elections and the state’s Division of Correction to help ex-felons regain their status as registered voters.

A measure sponsored by Sen. Christopher R. West (R-Baltimore County) and Del. Nick J. Mosby (D-Baltimore City) would require those agencies to provide a voter application form and general voting information to people preparing to transition back to society.

“If you want to ensure that individuals coming home from our prisons and jails feel included [and] reduce the rates of recidivism, we have to make sure that their rights are protected,” said Nicole Hanson-Mundell, executive director of the advocacy organization Out for Justice.

Perry Hopkins, a 58-year-old organizer with Communities United, spent nearly 20 years behind bars following his conviction on drug offenses. A resident of East Baltimore, he cast a ballot for the first time in 2016, after the Maryland legislature approved a measure restoring voting rights for convicted felons, an action that benefited 40,000 persons.

That measure took effect after lawmakers overrode a veto from Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr. (R).

“It’s time for change,” Hopkins said. “It’s time for voices to be heard.”

House Bill 568 and Senate Bill 372 would also require that people who are being held pending trial — who haven’t been convicted of a crime — must be given absentee ballots.

“You haven’t even gone to court yet,” Hopkins said of this group. “We need their voice. We need their participation in the process.”

Under current law, inmates awaiting trial can apply for an absentee ballot, according to the state’s deputy elections administrator, Nikki Charlson. “You can make a request on our website. You can fill out the absentee request form. Or you can just write a note to the local board of elections saying, ‘Please send me an absentee ballot here.'”

Advocates for formerly incarcerated persons said that’s not enough. They said the state must have elections personnel present in prison facilities to guarantee that people who are legally eligible to vote can gain access to a ballot.

A legislative analysis estimates the measures would cost state and local elections boards $432,000 in the first year and approximately $320,000 per year after that.

Most of the funding would pay for personnel needed to circulate among the state’s approximately 60 correctional facilities “on an ongoing, year-round basis, providing outreach in the correctional facilities regarding voter registration, voting rights, and absentee voting,” the analysis stated.

Asked if he believes the cost estimates are accurate, Mosby said “I do not. …Unfortunately sometimes the fiscal notes don’t necessarily align with the nature and intentions of the bill.”

“I stand committed to be extremely aggressive on this particularly bill,” Mosby told reporters. “This is one of my priorities this session.”

Kobi Little, the political action chairman for the Maryland NAACP, called the fiscal note “suspect.”

But even if it’s accurate, he said, the state has an obligation to do more.

“Today we ask the question why it takes so much money and so many personnel to ensure the right to vote in Maryland’s correctional facilities,” he said. “No matter how much it costs … we must be willing to pay the price.”

When people vote in places other than their home precincts — typically college campuses, nursing homes and prisons — elections officials must figure out which ballot they should get.

Maryland’s longest ballots occur in gubernatorial primaries, in which voters decide dozens of federal, state, county and school board races, requiring hundreds of different ballots.

Charlson said the state Board of Elections does not currently track the number of absentee ballots sent to correctional institutions. She stressed that the board has not taken a position on the measure.

The House Ways and Means Committee held a hearing on the bill on Tuesday. The Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee is scheduled to take public testimony on March 5.

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State Should Make it Easier for Ex-Felons to Vote, Advocates Say