Wednesday, April 6, 2016

MD Ex-Felons Become Voters as Primary Approaches

Activists from Communities United have been signing up hundreds of voters in West Baltimore neighborhoods and housing projects since March 10, the day a new Maryland State law went into effect that allows people with felony convictions to register to vote as soon as they are released from prison. Before that, they had to finish probation or parole.

In an instant, activists said, the law made an estimated 20,000 people in Baltimore and 40,000 statewide eligible to vote. More importantly, they said, it empowered thousands more who wrongly believed they would never be eligible to vote again.

The law's passage was fought by Gov. Larry Hogan, who vetoed it in 2015 and this year launched a social media publicity campaign attempting to prevent the legislature from overriding his veto. Hogan and many fellow Republicans argued that people who have not completed their sentence have not repaid their debt to society and should not be able to participate in elections. "There's only a tiny minority, a tiny radical minority of people in Maryland who want current felons to vote," Hogan said this year after the General Assembly reversed his veto. Hogan predicted that politicians who supported the policy "won't survive this."

The nonpartisan Communities United is using that sort of rhetoric as a tool to inspire felons to get involved. Posters at Baltimore's Penn North metro station, adjacent to the CVS that burned on national television during last year's riots, read "Ex-offenders we must vote. They're counting on us not to!"

"A lot of them say they can't vote because they're criminals," activist Shebra Johnson said. "That doesn't matter anymore."

So far, Communities United has signed up an average of 100 people each day and is on track to hit 5,000 before the April 5 voter registration deadline in advance of the April 26 Primary election. The group has scheduled an April 13 forum for the city's mayoral candidates to address the needs of the ex-offender community.

"People nowadays want to have hope," said activist Vernell Bridges. Two of her sons have felony convictions, she said, and one is still incarcerated. She's spent several afternoons this month in Penn North calling strangers "honey" and "baby," and urging them to sign up to vote. "Whether they believe change will come or not, they want hope," she said. "The law has already been passed," she hollered to a pair of skeptics. "Ex-offenders, they have rights."

De'Shai Williams, 20, missed her bus to work because she stopped by the voter registration table and got to chatting. She said she served three months on a 2013 felony charge related to a domestic violence situation and was currently on probation. The charge, she said, lost her a scholarship to Howard University and cost her right to vote before she could use it. Getting that right back, she said, is part of helping her rebuild. "We're individuals, just trying to live in society," Williams said. "You're trying to boost themselves up."

Comer, lead activist with Communities United, said ex-offenders are most concerned about jobs, then housing and support services. It's sometimes a tough sell to persuade them the political process can help. "You have to connect the dots," he said. "When you say you can vote for judges, that connects the dots, because judges are connected to the criminal justice system, and the criminal justice system is deeply connected to poor, black communities."

NYC Wins When Everyone Can Vote! Michael H. Drucker
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