According to the Sentencing Project, an estimated 5.85 million American citizens today are denied the right to vote because of state laws that prohibit voting by people with felony convictions.
The Maryland Legislature recently voted to join 13 states like Michigan, North Dakota, Ohio, and Utah in restoring voting rights to citizens convicted of a felony upon release from prison. However, these convicts will still be denied suffrage rights while they are incarcerated.
Current debate over this legislation is a great example of how many Americans still haven't grappled with accepting voting as a right, as opposed to seeing it as a privilege. The United States is an international outlier among well-established democracies in denying the right to vote to incarcerated citizens, let alone non-incarcerated people with felony convictions.As one example, the European Court of Human Rights has ruled four times that the United Kingdom is in violation of the European Convention on Human Rights for denying voting rights to incarcerated citizens,
most recently in February. At least 18 European nations, along with nations like Canada and two states (Maine and Vermont), do not deny voting rights to citizens in prison.
For years, Maryland was among the worst states when it came to denying voting rights to people with felony convictions. However, it has improved its status over the past few years. This bill would bring the state into line with several others -- still denying voting rights to incarcerated citizens with felony convictions, but at least restoring voting rights upon release from prison.
My home city of Takoma Park, to its credit, adopted this change a couple years ago for its own elections. [If you have three minutes to spare, watch ex-offender Jerry Cowan's powerful testimony to the Takoma Park City Council about his personal history and support for suffrage.]
The fact that states even have this power over suffrage rights is tied to the lack of an explicit right to vote in the U.S Constitution. Such an absence allows state political leaders to make suffrage a part of political football, with suggestions that it's somehow "soft on crime" to support human rights and voting rights.
For Maryland Governor Larry Hogan, this can be a defining moment: will he take a principled position or just play politics?
Editor's note: This opinion piece, written by Rob Richie, was originally published on the FairVote Blog on May 16, 2015, and has been edited for publication on IVN. To learn more about FairVote, visit the organization's website or follow them on Facebook or Twitter.