BALTIMORE – After a Maryland coalition expanded voting rights for people in jails and prisons during the 2020 presidential election, a landmark bill now in the General Assembly would turn that effort into law.
The Value My Vote Act would require state correctional facilities to give every person a voter registration or absentee ballot application upon their release. They’d also receive documentation that their voting rights have been restored, said Monica Cooper – executive director of the Maryland Justice Project.
Cooper, who served a decade in a Maryland prison, said many behind bars aren’t aware of their constitutional rights and – particularly during this health crisis – their voices need to be heard.
“I should determine who my leaders are,” said Cooper. “Because the impact that they have on how we will issue COVID vaccines, I should have a voice. And it’s people in prison right now that are terrified. There are decisions being made that impact them, and the people who are incarcerated deserve to be a part of that conversation.”
Last year, the same bill passed Maryland’s House on a bipartisan vote, but the pandemic closed the session before the Senate could vote on it. In 2016, Maryland lawmakers passed a law granting felons voting rights when they’re released.
People being held pretrial or serving time for a misdemeanor might not realize they have the right to vote.
Two-thirds of people incarcerated in Maryland are Black, and about one-third are from Baltimore, according to Caylin Young – public policy director with the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.
He said the Value My Vote Act would bring equity to the people most often affected by voting disenfranchisement.
“This is about ensuring the political powers of Black and Brown people are protected,” said Young. “This is about ensuring that communities which experience elevated levels of policing are not silent as a consequence of those policing efforts.”
About 30% of Maryland’s population is African American, and yet the state incarcerates more young Black men than any other state, according to a Justice Policy Institute report. Maryland’s rate is 25% higher than the next nearest state, Mississippi.