Opinion: Maryland Blocks Its Most Marginalized Citizens From Voting

Voter Rights

Since its emergence earlier this year, COVID-19 has impacted every aspect of life, and the 2020 elections are no exception. Maryland’s primary elections were postponed from April 28 to June 2 and an entire election was conducted almost solely via mail-in ballots in an effort to reduce human contact and the further spread of the coronavirus.

However, the Maryland Board of Elections admitted that they were not prepared to distribute mail-in ballots to all eligible voters in time, which should have raised a red flag for voting advocates concerned about the integrity of the electoral process. This should have served as a clear indication to the train wreck the June 2 primaries would later become, as thousands of area voters were left without a voice during a time of historic proportions.

Among those most severely disenfranchised were the 40,000-plus incarcerated Marylanders in jail or prison for misdemeanors or awaiting trial but not yet convicted, who were eligible to vote in this year’s elections, but had no access to in-person voting and no easy way to receive mailed ballots, which are sent to permanent addresses.

Considering that African-Americans make up 30% of the state population, but a staggering 70% of the state prison population, placing further barriers on those incarcerated in Maryland disproportionately marginalizes the Black community. By suppressing the voices of incarcerated people, the state of Maryland is unconstitutionally disenfranchising Black voters.

In the run up to the primary, freshman state Del. Carl Jackson wrote a letter to the governor and members of the state Board of Elections pointing out these concerns and the fact that we were now eliminating precinct-level reporting – the backbone for any fair and accurate election. However, there was little action taken by the elected leadership of our great state.

Gov. Larry Hogan talked a good game about wanting every vote to count, while ignoring the very alarming voter exclusions laid out in the board’s election manifesto on how the election would take place. Democratic leaders in the House and Senate all but ignored the pre-election warnings, deciding instead to flex their political jawbones by holding one or two hearings after the fiasco that we called an election, never truly getting to the bottom of who was responsible and how we can achieve success in the future.

So with a General Election on the horizon, how can Marylanders feel assured that their vote will count this November, when those responsible for ensuring the security and safety of our election process have been asleep at the wheel for the majority of the 2020 cycle?

The answer is simple:

  • We must restore precinct-level reporting, which is the only way we can conduct a post-election audit to ensure that every vote cast was counted and to ensure that votes weren’t cast by those who no longer held active voter registration cards (i.e. dead folks).
  • We must ensure every Marylander is given access to the ballot, whether it be through an accessible polling location or a mail-in ballot that doesn’t place an undue burden on their health and safety, which includes not requiring those without means to have to suddenly find a way to access the internet or a printer in order have a ballot to cast.
  • We must ensure that Maryland follows its own election laws, which currently allow incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals to register to vote if they are not currently serving a prison sentence for a felony conviction. The Board of Elections can do this by gathering lists of eligible incarcerated individuals from each jurisdiction (several have already sent them, at advocates’ request) and mail them each a voter registration application and an absentee ballot.

Since the governor has repeatedly stated that his two main priorities are keeping Marylanders safe and protecting their constitutional right to vote, we expect him to do just that.

Anything less would be uncivilized.

— NICOLE HANSON

The writer is executive director of Out for Justice Inc. She can be reached at [email protected].