Maryland state lawmakers have taken up legislation to allow felons to vote once they were released from prison. Currently, felons must wait for their parole or probation to run out.
Jane Henderson, a longtime advocate for criminal justice reform and executive director of Communities United, was surprised to learn that the legislation was getting action. She had assumed it would have been difficult to get the legislature to address the matter, let alone pass legislation. Republican Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed it in May, but she is optimistic that the legislature will override him, and soon.
"By state constitution, they have to take it up soon when the next session starts in January," Henderson told the Washington Examiner. "In the Senate, we're fine. The House voted 82 for it and we need 85 … We're very close."
If Maryland does approve the bill, the state would be the latest in an accelerating trend. Since 2009, six states have rolled back laws limiting felon voting rights. In November, Democratic Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear signed an executive order restoring voting rights for people convicted of nonviolent offenses. In addition, a lawsuit by the American Civil Liberties Union against Iowa's highly restrictive felon voting rules is expected to be resolved by June.
In the last year, 56 bills relating to felon voting rights were introduced in 20 states, all but one specifically related to making voting easier, according to the nonpartisan National Conference of State Legislatures.
Such a trend would have been unthinkable as recently as the 1990s, when Democrats like President Bill Clinton tried to outbid Republicans on get-tough crime laws. That attitude faded as crime rates dropped nationally. Now even conservatives such as Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., and the Koch brothers are pushing criminal justice reform as an issue.
"There is a recognition that we need a system in which voters and taxpayers see a good return on their investment in the criminal justice system and right now we're just not seeing that," said Myrna Perez, deputy director of the Brennan Center for Justice's democracy program. "That recognition is getting a tremendous amount of bipartisan agreement."
The tide has shifted so much that leading activists for restoring felon voting rights say they don't even face any official opposition, just knee-jerk resistance from individual groups of lawmakers. The biggest factor for activists seeking to roll back the restrictions even further is the same problem with any legislation — getting lawmakers' undivided attention.
"There does not seem to be a strong organized political opposition, although [legislative] inertia is plenty difficult to overcome," said Dale Ho, director of the American Civil Liberties Union's voting rights project.
Forty states and the District of Columbia allow all felons to regain their right to vote once their sentence is completed or earlier, according to the ACLU. Only Maine and Vermont impose no restrictions at all, even allowing felons to vote while still in jail. The only states that completely prohibit felons from voting are Florida and Iowa, and even there the right can be restored if the governor issues a pardon. The remaining states disenfranchise some felons permanently but not others based on the nature of their convictions.
Thus, most felons can vote. However, they usually have to re-apply, a process critics say is often too cumbersome. The process varies from state to state, and most of the legislative activity at the state level has focused on tweaking it.
However, National Conference of State Legislatures policy analyst Daniel Diorio says there is unlikely to be as much activity this year. "States and legislators are hesitant to make changes just before an election, especially during a presidential year with so much on the line," he said.