At nearly 55 years old, Baltimore resident Perry Hopkins has never seen the inside of a voting booth. During the upcoming primary election in April, he will exercise his right to vote for the first time.
During the 19 years Hopkins spent in prison for drug offenses, he was not allowed to vote. But when he got out on parole, the state still barred him from voting, under a 2007 state law that required former convicts to serve out the full terms of their sentences before regaining their right to vote.
Hopkins has since finished the terms of his sentence, but many others have remained disenfranchised while they sought work and housing post-prison.
That changes today, when a bill passed last year in the Maryland General Assembly goes into effect, restoring voting rights to about 40,000 ex-prisoners. Governor Larry Hogan vetoed the bill in May, but the General Assembly overrode his veto last month.
The law gives new voting rights to the formerly incarcerated, but the group still faces discriminatory housing and employment policies.
“For so long, I had a job, I was paying taxes, but I couldn’t even choose the president, much less anything going on in Baltimore,” Hopkins says.
The timing adds to the sense of drama. After the death of Freddie Gray at the hands of Baltimore police officers last April and the ensuing protests, Baltimore’s communities are hungrier than ever for change in their local representation.
Maryland joins about 20 states that have rolled back voting restrictions in the past 20 years. But voting rights still vary widely from state to state. Three states—Florida, Indiana, and Kentucky—bar felons for life from voting, while two others—Maine and Vermont—allow them to vote while they’re in prison. The remaining states return the vote to prisoners either as soon as they’re released or upon the completion of probation or parole. Today, nearly 6 million Americans are prevented from voting because of these state laws.
The debate on whether and when convicts should be allowed to vote continues in other states. Former Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear signed an executive order that restored voting rights to about 170,000 former felons in November. But a new governor reversed the action the following month. And in the U.S. Congress, the Democracy Restoration Act, which would extend voting rights nationwide to everyone who completes his or her sentence, has not gained traction since it was first introduced in 2008.
Maryland’s own voter access laws have been a work in progress. The state banned for life felons from voting in its 1851 state constitution. In 2002, they gained the right to vote after a three-year waiting period had passed. Then, in 2007, a second bill removed the waiting period, extending voting rights to all people who had finished the terms of their sentences.
Even then, many former convicts didn’t know they were allowed to vote after their sentences were up, says Charly Carter, director of the Maryland chapter of Working Families, a progressive political organization. The law was difficult to enforce and confused even state election officials, she says.
“All the time that they’re out [of prison], they’re working every day and they’re paying taxes and dealing with a number of other barriers and challenges to self-sufficiency,” Carter says. “It’s taxation without representation when you have someone that’s working but they’re not able to vote.”
But Maryland’s General Assembly didn’t pass the recent voter access expansion on its own. At least 25 groups—representing low-income people, incarcerated people, union members, and people of color—championed the bill, which was originally introduced in 2015, and helped it overcome the governor’s veto. The coalition branded itself as Unlock the Vote.
Most of these groups traditionally focused on issues other than voting rights. But organizers realized that their low-income members were struggling to secure housing, receive education grants, or pass background checks necessary for jobs. Meanwhile, many of them were powerless to support policy changes because they were disenfranchised. The law suppressed voting among the community, too.
“There was no confidence in the electoral process … because they didn’t have a say,” Carter says. “In doing the work [with poor communities], what we realized was that when you disenfranchise a felon, it usually doesn’t end with that one person. If it’s a mother, generally her children never register to vote. It’s their kids, it’s their grandkids, it’s their neighbors, it’s their friends.”
As a result, city council members and state representatives weren’t held accountable on issues affecting poor communities.
“As long as there’s the view that ex-offenders are a constituency that legislators don’t have to answer to, their needs are never going to be addressed,” says Jane Henderson, executive director of Communities United, a leading member of Unlock the Vote. “[You] have to prove you’re a force to be reckoned with.”
Once the bill was introduced in 2015 by Delegate Cory McCray, a freshman representative who is himself an ex-offender, the road to passage went surprisingly smoothly—with help from Unlock the Vote.
Coalition members testified in the General Assembly, conducted research, compiled fact sheets, and helped legislators learn more about the issue.
“It’s old-fashioned, painstaking organizing,” Henderson says.
The bill passed both houses of the General Assembly last April. And when the governor vetoed it, Henderson says, Unlock the Vote was prepared. The coalition already had enough votes in the state Senate to override the veto, but needed three more in the Assembly. In the end, they were able to get support from two members who had originally voted against the bill, and a third who hadn’t voted on it the first time around.
One key advocate for the bill was Perry Hopkins. After emerging from his most recent prison stint, he says, he collected six uniforms from jobs that hired and trained him until they ran background checks and let him go within a week of employment. He underwent several job readiness and training programs, none of which helped him get a job because of his criminal record. Hopkins was legally prohibited from visiting his girlfriend in public housing and couldn’t attend truck driving school.
Then Communities United lead organizer John Comer took an interest in Hopkins and hired him for a nine-month gig as an intern. Unlock the Vote was his first campaign for the group. Today, he’s a community organizer there.
“This was like my baby,” Hopkins says of Unlock the Vote.
As someone who wanted to be president while growing up as a black kid, he says, he was disappointed that he couldn’t vote for President Barack Obama during either presidential election.
“That really hurt me,” he says.
But working at Communities United showed him the importance of local politics to his own community.
“Since [the election of] Obama, I wanted to vote,” he says. “I realized the importance of being a registered voter to your community because that’s how your money is dispersed.”
Hopkins says he’s driven to increase turnout in poor communities that tend to be the least represented at the polls. He’s inviting ex-offenders to election board offices to register to vote, and he says parole and probation officers are being certified to enroll new voters.
Carter says she expects those new voters to support policies that help low-income people.
When you look at the people who have been disenfranchised, she says, “You can say that overwhelmingly they’re supportive of policies that help poor communities of color. They wholeheartedly support progressive policies that create jobs, that invest more money in education and child care and job training.”
Organizers say there are other voter access battles coming up in Maryland, such as an automatic voter registration bill making the rounds. However, because of the narrow window between the beginning of the new law and primary and local elections next month, on April 21, the most immediate battle is to persuade ex-prisoners to register to vote and then show up at the polls.
“[Last year’s] unrest focused everyone’s attention on the frustration we all share and haven’t quite voiced together,” Carter says. “A lot of people feel like they want to have a say. They’re anxious to have a say in making changes.”