Return the Right to Vote to 'Missing Men'

Last week The New York Times published a startling statistic: There are 1.5 million black men missing from the American landscape.

It's startling for some, but for those living it -- the men placed behind bars and the families of those who've been killed -- that fact has long been known.

According to The New York Times, across the country "more than one of every six black men who today should be between 25 and 54 years old have disappeared from daily life." Of the "missing" men who've been imprisoned, most face a number of challenges upon completing their terms, including finding work and reintegrating.

Something must and can be done to ensure that communities from which these men go "missing" do not suffer further. Maryland, for one, eased the process of reintegration for these men (and women) just a couple of weeks ago, passing legislation that returns the franchise to eligible voters upon immediate release from incarceration. The move bucks a national system. In 35 states, the formerly incarcerated are prohibited from voting -- and thus from fully participating in political and civic life -- until they've completed probation and/or parole, with some states additionally requiring a governor's pardon in order to have the right restored. These laws, disproportionately affecting men of color, oftentimes for having committed the same drug crimes as whites, have collectively resulted in the elimination of 5.85 million voices from the political process. Without those voices, underrepresented communities go further marginalized.

As The New York Times reports, in terms of "missing" black men, Baltimore ranks in the top 20 cities. In Maryland alone, nearly 40,000 stand to benefit from the law -- once it's signed by Gov. Larry Hogan. Gov. Hogan already has demonstrated his support for the Maryland Second Chance Act, a bill that would give former offenders the chance to shield their court and police records, bettering their chances of finding work. Reenfranchisement, as another means of reintegration, is the right -- and logical -- next step. Men and women who have completed their sentences are expected to return to work, pay their taxes, and become accountable to their communities. Resuming one's civic right and responsibility is part of that process, and denial of the right to vote is not only undemocratic but also self-defeating. Indeed, studies indicate that participation in the political process contributes to reducing recidivism.

Law enforcement and religious organizations alike, along with a growing group of advocates, back the move to restore the right to vote. Common Cause, among the many voices, calls on the governor to show his support for Maryland communities by signing S.B. 340/H.B. 980, co-sponsored by Sen. Joan Carter Conway and Del. Cory McCray. Maryland and several other states -- Minnesota, Florida, and Iowa -- are moving toward reenfranchisement, undoing centuries-long practices that have kept vital voices -- voices that help represent the entirety of a community -- out. It's the right direction for the rest of the country, and it's inevitable. It's just a matter of when these "missing" men will actually be seen and counted.