Undoing Veto, Maryland Legislators Ease Ex-Felon Voting Rights

An estimated 44,000 ex-felons in Maryland will have an easier time regaining the right to vote after being released from prison, following the end of a heated fight between the state's governor and its legislature.

Without a vote to spare, backers of bills (SB 340, HB 980) to allow ex-felons' voting privileges to be restored immediately upon their release from prison squeaked to a hairsbreadth 29-18 vote victory in the state Senate on February 9. To overturn the governor's veto, legislators had to muster affirmative votes from three-fifths of each chamber of the state's General Assembly.

The state Senate override vote had been postponed for months, as supporters and opponents battled over votes. The Senate tally generally followed party lines, although four Democratic senators from more conservative areas sided with opponents. In fact, the override succeeded only on the second try on the day it came up. The first attempt fell one vote short, as one senator left the chamber right before it came time to vote; a second vote after the missing senator returned eventually put the measure over the top.

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The state's lower legislative chamber, the House of Delegates, had voted to override by an equally narrow 85-56 margin the previous month. In the votes, the Democratic-dominated Maryland legislature continued its unbroken streak of successfully overriding all six vetoes to date by first-term Republican governor Larry Hogan.

Maryland's new law will take effect in March, and as a result, will no longer require released ex-felons to complete all terms of their sentence - such as parole or probation - before being legally refranchised. Until a 2007 law signed by former governor Martin McNally (D), Maryland had not allowed restoration of ex-felons' voting privileges.

States differ widely in how they treat re-enfranchisement of former felons. Two states (Maine and Vermont) let persons convicted of felonies continue voting even while they are serving prison terms. Three states (Florida, Kentucky and Iowa) have lifetime bars on convicted felons voting. Maryland now joins 13 other states and the District of Columbia in permitting felons voting rights as soon as they are released; seventeen states require not just release, but completion of the ex-offender's sentence, including any required parole or probation.

Advocates of the change argued it would help ease prisoners' re-entry into society; some cited a study done for the Florida Parole Commission, which found that ex-offenders who had their voting rights restored had a recidivism rate only about one-third as high as ex-offenders who were not permitted to vote after their release. Others pointed to the stricter law's heavier impact on minority group members. Some also argued making the end of incarceration, rather than completion of all post-incarceration conditions would be far easier for state election officials to administer.

Opponents of the measure attempted to counter by arguing it was not supported by the public, which they said looked with alarm at proposals to make imprisonment less onerous. Some predicted that voters would retaliate at the polls against legislators voting to make it easier for felons to regain voting rights.

Electoral calculations may also have been on the minds of some proponents of the measure, as political analysts noted that about 20,000 of the ex-offenders who could gain immediate access to the ballot box come from Baltimore, and would be eligible to vote in this spring's primary contests there in hotly contested mayoral and City Council elections, as well as the November general elections.

Christopher Zoukis is the author of College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com