Maryland’s legislature today voted to override a gubernatorial veto and restored voting rights to an estimated 40,000 citizens with past criminal convictions. This is a major step forward in the effort to reform the nation’s harsh and antiquated disenfranchisement laws.
Less than a decade ago, the Old Line State disenfranchised these individuals for life. When the new provision goes into effect next month, Maryland will be the 14th state, plus the District of Columbia, to give a second chance to people with past convictions who are living, working, and paying taxes in their communities.
Prior Maryland law required people to complete all terms of probation or parole before being allowed to vote again. In 2015, the state’s legislature passed a measure that limited disenfranchisement to when someone was serving a prison term. But despite passing by wide margins, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) vetoed the proposal. With this override vote, the legislature underscored the importance of voting rights not only to our democracy, but also to our criminal justice system.
This legislation passes in an especially important place and at a critical moment. Baltimore, the state of Maryland, and the nation as a whole continue to grapple with a criminal justice system badly in need of repair. Disenfranchisement laws impact over 5 million people nationwide, and are an important part of that debate because they reproduce the racial disparities of the criminal justice system and make it harder to reintegrate citizens back into the community.
According to Sentencing Project data, black Marylanders comprise more than 61 percent of the 40,000 citizens whose rights will be restored when the law goes into effect next month. Research, including studies from law enforcement, shows that restoring voting rights aids the re-entry process and helps rehabilitation. In fact, officials support the policy because it serves public safety and can reduce crime.
In less than a decade, Maryland has come a long way. But other states have also made significant strides. In fact, more than 20 states have scaled back their disenfranchisement policies in the last two decades, including six in the last five years alone. There is a growing consensus among law enforcement and leaders of both parties that restoring voting rights is common sense reform.
Still, there remain challenges. In Kentucky, for example, one of the last acts of outgoing Gov. Steve Beshear (D) last year was to issue an executive order restoring voting rights to an estimated 140,000 citizens who had completed their sentences. Only a month later, Kentucky’s new governor, Matt Bevin (R), issued his own order that again made the state, along with Florida and Iowa, one of only three with lifetime voting bans.
But Maryland’s example shows another way — that change in this area is achievable, and that we can fully welcome our fellow citizens into a more inclusive democracy. That is a meaningful lesson at any time, but especially in this national election year. By rejecting cynicism and embracing second chances, our communities and country will be stronger for it.
Tomas Lopez is counsel for the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law.