Consider for a moment a hypothetical version of the 2000 U.S. presidential election between Texas Gov. George W. Bush and then-Vice President Al Gore — this time with Florida’s 827,000 felons allowed to cast ballots instead of being barred from voting because of their criminal convictions.
Had they voted in the highly contested election that the then-Texas governor won by just 537 votes, Gore could have theoretically won the state. If those voters had swung Democrat, they would have vaulted him into the presidency, avoiding an ugly, protracted legal battle for the White House. But remember, that’s just a hypothetical.
Maryland legislators voted Tuesday to restore the voting rights of more than 40,000 released felons, who previously were not legally allowed to vote until completing probation and parole terms. It stands to reason that if freed felons voted, those ballots could significantly affect elections, but data shows former prisoners are still less likely to vote once they get out of prison. While that low voting rate can be linked to a lack of education and growing up in poverty, voting experts say former felons sometimes don’t vote because they simply don’t know if they can.
“[Felons] are a little intimidated about voting; they don’t want to take the chance of voting and breaking another law,” said Christopher Uggen, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota who studies disenfranchisement. “People can be charged with felonies if they voted on supervised release in Minnesota. Any sort of doubt about that would have a chilling effect.”
The Maryland legislature voted Tuesday to give recently released felons the right to vote even if they haven’t completed their probation or parole. Republican Gov. Larry Hogan lobbied against the bill, but the legislature narrowly overturned his veto.
“Today, 29 people in the Maryland Senate decided to ignore reason and common sense and support an action that the vast majority of Marylanders vehemently oppose,” Doug Mayer, deputy communications director for the governor's office, said in an email. “For too long, voters have been completely ignored by their elected representatives in Annapolis — it happened again today and our citizens deserve better.”
Maryland House Delegate Cory McCray, a Democrat who sponsored the House version of the bill, represents Maryland’s 45th District, on the east side of Baltimore, a district he said has one of the highest numbers of people on probation and parole in Maryland. He expects many of the felons who fall under the new law's parameters to register to vote.
“We have 43,000 people not in the equation, so do I think people are going to take advantage of it? Absolutely,” McCray said.
The Maryland legislature in 2007 voted to expand voting rights to felons who have finished out their sentences, including probation and parole. That was the first time Baltimore resident Walter Lomax, who was 59 at the time, was ever able to cast a ballot.
Lomax was convicted of murder in 1968 but was released in 2006 when questions about his trial were brought up. His crime, however, remained on the record until 2014, when the courts tossed it. The 2007 law, which reportedly allowed about 50,000 people convicted of felonies to vote, gave Lomax the ability to cast his first ballot in Baltimore elections, but it was Barack Obama's presidential election the following year that made voting feel especially real for the first time, he said. Lomax, who is now 68, ultimately became the executive director of the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative, which advocates for better sentencing policies.
“I don’t know how to describe how I felt being able to vote in that election and how I felt when he was actually elected; it was a great experience,” said Lomax, who is black. “He was the first African-American elected to that position and he was such a great person. … It was something in my lifetime I never expected to see.”
But it seems Lomax isn't representative of the vast majority of released felons. According to a 2014 research paper that studied groups of ex-felons who could vote but were unregistered in Connecticut, voter turnout was low even when the ex-felons were told they were allowed to vote.
Gregory Huber, a Yale University political science professor and one of the authors of the paper, said many ex-felons aren’t typically regular voters even before they go to prison, as they often come from poor neighborhoods and don’t have much education. In Pennsylvania, someone is 5 or 6 percent less likely to vote after going to prison, he said.
“The same bad life experience that makes one more likely to end up in prison — coming from a broken home, doing badly in school — may predict whether or not you vote,” Huber said. Many who go to prison for felonies often have had many bad interactions with the criminal justice system, he said, and they don’t feel as though they have a voice. “Going to prison is the end of a long stream of interaction with the criminal justice system that demobilizes people,” Huber added.
Since 2007, felons who were out of jail but still on parole or probation were listed in Maryland's voting system as “pending,” Armstead Jones, election director for the Baltimore City Board of Elections, said. If someone tried to register as a voter and were listed as “pending,” the board of elections would send them a letter saying they weren’t allowed to vote. It was then up to the ex-felon to send back a letter indicating they were no longer on parole or probation.
After the law changed in 2007, Jones said, there wasn’t a high number of formerly disenfranchised people who registered to vote, signaling to him something similar may happen with the most recently passed legislation.
“I just don’t think there’s going to be a whole influx of folks,” Jones said. “Only those that were interested in this process will be coming and those that have their focus on other things won’t take the time to do it.”
Voter disenfranchisement varies widely by state. According to the Sentencing Project, a Washington, D.C.–based nonprofit that promotes changing sentencing policies in the U.S., only two states — Maine and Vermont — have no barriers to felon voting, even allowing felons to vote while behind bars. Some states, such as Florida and Iowa, ban felons from voting starting the day they enter prison and lasting until death.
By 2010, the number of disenfranchised felons in the U.S. was at 5.85 million, according to Sentencing Project data. While those convicted of felonies often don’t vote directly after getting out of prison, the likelihood they will cast ballots increases as they get older, Uggen said. More states are moving to loosen their disenfranchisement laws, Uggen said.
The problem of ex-felons not knowing if they can vote still persists, said Tomas Lopez, counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice, a New York-based public policy institute, who works on voting rights. The laws vary so much by state, people who have served time for felony convictions are often told they can’t vote, when they actually can.
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Informing potential voters is the best way to get them to register, said Lomax, of the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative. When he and his group inform ex-felons they can have a say in their neighborhoods, such as where a park will go, people become more interested.
“When they realized they could receive a response," he said, "that was power.”