By KIMBERLY SEIF
COLLEGE PARK, Md. — Those incarcerated awaiting trial or convicted of misdemeanors would be able to register to vote and learn about their voting rights under legislation in the Maryland General Assembly this year.
The Senate version of the bill, which was jointly referred to the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee and the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee, is being sponsored by Sen. Chris West, R-Baltimore County.
The Value My Vote Act, SB0224, was heard in the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee last week.
The legislation has bipartisan support through its cross-filed House bill, HB0222, sponsored by Del. Jheanelle K. Wilkins, D-Montgomery.
Both Wilkins and West spoke at a press conference last week hosted by the various voting rights advocacy groups in support of this bill, including Common Cause, Out for Justice, Life After Release and Schools not Jails.
If passed, this bill would require the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services to provide a voter registration application as well as documentation informing the individual that their voting rights have been restored to incarcerated felons upon their release.
The department would also be required to post signage in every parole and probation office, as well as on their website, indicating that incarcerated felons are reinstated their voting rights upon release.
The voting rights of convicted felons were restored in Maryland — one of 14 states that allow former felons to vote — after a change to election law in 2016.
But the state needs to do more to inform inmates of their voting rights, according to the advocacy groups that gave testimony at the SB0224 bill hearing.
Mckayla Wilkes, the co-founder and executive director of School Not Jails, a non-profit organization that aims to end the school-to-prison pipeline, testified during the hearing that she canvassed several jails and was surprised to learn that a number of felons being released did not know they had voting rights again.
Wilkes stated that this bill would be a step in the right direction to improve voter education.
“We are not restoring any rights, but we are allowing people to exercise their right to vote,” Wilkes said in her testimony.
Another requirement of this bill is that it would provide voter registration applications and informational materials to individuals who are currently incarcerated, but have not been convicted of a felony.
This would include people who are being held awaiting a trial or have been charged with a misdemeanor crime, both of which do not disqualify a person from voting.
The Value My Vote Act would require the State Board of Elections or a local election board to establish a program to give out these materials at least 30 days before an election.
The Board of Elections would also be required to provide instructions on absentee voting and absentee ballot applications, as well as provide numerous opportunities for voters to register, according to a state legislative analysis.
Currently, there are approximately 9,000 people in the state of Maryland who are being held awaiting trial, and approximately 15,000 who are in jail due to misdemeanor crimes, according to West.
Dana Paikowsky, a voting rights lawyer for Equal Justice Works who testified at the Senate bill hearing, stated that it can be very difficult for eligible voters who are incarcerated to exercise their voting rights, as they do not have access to election or candidate information, as well as basic things like stamps or writing utensils.
Paikowsky also stated that the groups most likely to be affected by this “jail-based disenfranchisement” are people of color, low-income individuals, and people with disabilities.
These factors are also the No. 1 predictors of whether someone is likely to vote, according to Paikowsky.
“By creating a program like this one, the state is trying to counteract that failure of democracy and engage a cross-section of voters that have been historically and consistently marginalized,” Paikowsky said in her testimony.
“This proposed legislation has been battle-tested,” Nicole Hanson-Mundell, executive director of Out for Justice, an organization that advocates for criminal justice reform, said in an interview with Capital News Service.
Out for Justice worked with the state Board of Elections and created voting information packets to be distributed to local detention facilities across the state, and also went inside the Howard County Detention Center to register voters.
The organization also spoke with recently released felons.
“I think we engaged almost 1,000 people just in the short window between the primary and the general election,” Hanson-Mundell said.
If this bill passes, the State Board of Elections would also be required to file a report each year by Jan. 15 to the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs as well as the House Ways and Means committees.
This report would have information about the number of eligible voters who registered and voted successfully through an absentee ballot.
The report would also need to document how many times the State Board of Elections visited each correctional facility, how long their visit was, and a description of what they did, according to the legislative analysis.
During the bill hearing, there was no opposing testimony heard.
The implementation of this program would cost $358,833 annually, to be split between the state and local governments, according to the fiscal note
Funds would pay for trained correctional officers to provide information and voting applications at about 60 facilities, and to report their activities.
There is no voting session scheduled for SB0224 or HB0222 in Senate or House of Delegates committees.