The Maryland Senate approved legislation on Monday night that would allow felons to register to vote as soon as they are released from prison, rather than waiting until after they have completed probation, parole and paid restitution.
The 29 to 18 vote was mostly along party lines, with all of the Senate’s 14 Republicans and four Democrats voting against the bill.
Supporters of the legislation said in floor testimony that former prisoners automatically regain a number of rights as soon as they leave incarceration — and that the list should include voting, a way to reintegrate themselves into society.
Plus, they added, many former felons are confused about when exactly they can register to vote and post-prison is the clearest milestone that’s easiest for the state to enforce.
Sen. Joan Carter Conway (D-Baltimore), who introduced the legislation, said that at least a dozen states already allow offenders to register to vote as soon as they are released — and two states, Vermont and Maine, allow people to vote while they are serving time in prison.
In floor testimony last week, Conway pointed out that a disproportionate number of inmates are racial or ethnic minorities.
But several Republicans countered that probation, parole and paying restitution are part of a criminal sentence — and said that offenders should fully complete their entire sentences before regaining the privilege of voting.
During a floor debate last week, Sen. Michael J. Hough (R-Frederick) asked why Democrats support restoring a former offender’s right to vote so quickly but not his or her right to immediately carry a gun (Hough, for what it’s worth, also opposes letting felons carry guns once they get out of prison).
“These are felons who have not completed their sentence,” Hough said on Monday evening. “Just because you are on parole or probation does not mean you’ve completed your sentence ... This is sending a bad message.”
The Maryland House of Delegates has yet to act on its version of the felons’ voting rights bill.
More than 50 of the chamber’s 141 members are listed as co-sponsors on the House legislation.