State Board of Elections Partners With Advocates to Expand Ballot Access to the Incarcerated

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Voting rights advocates announced Monday that the Maryland State Board of Elections is partnering with nonprofit organizations to expand absentee ballot access to eligible incarcerated voters.

“We know that each election cycle, countless voters are excluded from participating in the electoral process, and these are individuals who are pre-trial and misdemeanor status,” said Nicole Hanson-Mundell, executive director of Out For Justice. “They are prevented from access to voter registration forms; they are prevented from having access to mail-in request forms; and they are prevented from accessing the ballot.”

Hanson-Mundell said at a news conference that the State Board of Elections has “committed” to sending letters with voting instructions, voter registration applications, mail-in ballot applications and envelops with return postage to all eligible voters held in local jails. 

These materials will be available in Spanish for facilities in Prince George’s and Montgomery counties.

This ballot expansion effort comes as a result of advocacy from the Expand the Ballot Expand the Vote Coalition — a group of 20 non-partisan, nonprofit organizations aimed at ensuring that incarcerated Marylanders who are eligible to vote have the opportunity to do so during the 2020 general election. 

They have recommended that all instructional voting materials be sent out by the end of the week.

The State Board of Elections, according to Hanson-Mundell, has agreed to foot the bill for the printing and mailing costs and is in the process of contacting administrators and wardens from each of Maryland’s 28 local jails to determine an approximate count of eligible voters. 

So far, they have received counts from Washington, Charles, Carroll, Montgomery, Dorchester and Howard counties. 

In 2015, the General Assembly voted, largely along party lines, to expand the right to vote for current and formerly incarcerated Marylanders. The bill became law in 2016 following an override of Gov. Lawrence J. Hogan Jr.’s (R) veto.

Under the law, individuals awaiting trial or serving time for a misdemeanor conviction can vote while behind bars. Those with felony convictions regain the right to vote upon their release. 

Anyone convicted of buying or selling votes permanently loses their ability to register.

Advocates say that, while those who have served time or are awaiting trial have the right to vote, no one is ensuring that they have the ability to exercise it.

“That was over four years ago” that the incarcerated population regained the right to vote, said Hanson-Mundell. “And yet it is not until today — this week, this month — that the State Board of Elections committed to actually doing something — doing their job to ensure ballot access.”

Some of these actions are reflective of failed legislation advocates pushed for during the truncated 2020 legislative session.

The coalition rallied behind a bill sponsored by Del. Nick J. Mosby (D-Baltimore City) that would mandate local departments of corrections and elections boards to establish ballot access for people behind bars. The legislation passed in the House but didn’t make much headway in the Senate.

In addition to ensuring that incarcerated Marylanders had ballot access, the bill would have required that the State Board of Elections conduct an annual audit to track voting engagement of the incarcerated population.

Qiana Johnson, executive director of Life After Release, said that lawmakers have not prioritized protecting the rights of individuals who, in many cases, have not been convicted of a crime.

“To deny access to the ballot is to deny someone their rights,” Johnson said, “and for decades, for centuries — for a long time — this has been the common practice for individuals here in the state of Maryland.”

Secretary Robert Green of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services issued a directive last September detailing the voting process for those in state custody. The coalition wrote in a letter to the State Board of Elections that the document outlining this policy “was only recently made available,” and that they have doubts in the department’s ability to follow through.

“We are not confident this policy was implemented by DSPCS during the primary election and do not believe they have the ability to implement a secure process for voting by November 3rd as it does not involve local or state election officials,” they wrote.

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Hannah Gaskill
Hannah Gaskill received her master’s of journalism degree in December 2019 from the University of Maryland. She previously worked on the print layout design team at The Diamondback, reported on criminal justice in Maryland for Capital News Service and served as a production assistant for The Confluence — the daily news magazine on 90.5 WESA, Pittsburgh’s NPR member station. Gaskill has had bylines in The Baltimore Sun, The Washington Post and The Chicago Tribune, among other publications.Before pursuing journalism, she received her bachelor’s of fine art degree from Carnegie Mellon University in 2016. She grew up in Ocean City.