During every election since Monica Cooper returned home from more than a decade of incarceration she wears her “I Voted” sticker in the center of her forehead.
“I want the whole world to know how important voting is to me and how important voting is to other folks who are serving time,” said Cooper, who is the executive director of the Maryland Justice Project.
But Cooper said many formerly or currently incarcerated people encounter barriers to registering to vote and casting their ballot.
Cooper is part of the “Expand the Ballot, Expand the Vote” coalition, a group of voting rights advocates and organizations pushing the Maryland General Assembly to pass a bill that would require the state’s correctional department to provide voter registration applications and election education materials to eligible voters who are incarcerated or recently released.
The bill would also require the State Board of Elections to submit an annual report to the General Assembly, including the number of incarcerated or formerly incarcerated, eligible voters who registered to vote, attempted to vote and successfully voted that year.
The Value My Vote Act (HB 222/SB224) is being sponsored by Del. Jheanelle Wilkins (D-Montgomery County) in the Maryland House of Delegates and Sen. Chris West (R-Baltimore County) in the Maryland State Senate.
A version of the bill passed in the House of Delegates last year, but it was unable to advance further after leaders of the General Assembly cut short the 2020 legislative session due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Coalition members, including lawmakers, attorneys and advocates, voiced their support for the bill during a video conference on Wednesday.
“Every single voter should have full access to the right to vote,” Wilkins said. “Our elections should not leave any voter behind, yet we’re having to introduce this bill because there is a particular population — our eligible incarcerated individuals — that are shut out of voting.”
People who are incarcerated while awaiting their trial or who are serving time for a misdemeanor still have the right to vote, Wilkins said.
West hopes to raise bipartisan support for the bill, which he said will benefit incarcerated people across Maryland, regardless of party affiliation.
More than 70 percent of people incarcerated in Maryland’s prisons are Black, said Krystal Williams, director of government relations for the Maryland Office of the Public Defender.
But Black people make up about 31 percent of the state’s overall population, according to census data.
“Whether laws and policies can be directly traced to systematic efforts to silence Black voices, or can be seen to have a de facto impact on silencing Black voices, it is up to all of us to make necessary changes to ensure that all voices are represented, heard and valued through local state and federal voting processes,” Williams said.
Dana Paikowsky, an Equal Justice Works fellow for the Campaign Legal Center, said thousands of incarcerated or formerly incarcerated people are left out of the voting process.
“One of the issues here is that we don’t get really good numbers about who we should be doing outreach to, about who is impacted, about who’s impacted who has come out, who’s coming in,” she said.
Paikowsky said that many people who would be eligible to vote are not yet registered, which complicates defining the scope of “eligible voters” who are disenfranchised.
“The impact the justice system has on justice-involved voters is massive, and so the impact of a program that works to serve these voters would also be massive,” she said, adding that the bill would help better keep track of incarcerated, eligible voters.
Kobi Little, president of the Baltimore chapter of the NAACP, said the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol challenged the nation’s democratic values. But he said supporting the Value My Vote Act would be a chance for state lawmakers to protect the voting rights of incarcerated voters in Maryland.
“This legislation is about our commitment to democracy, and what kind of nation and what kind of state we are and are going to be,” Little said. “On Jan. 6, we saw very clearly what people who hate democracy are all about. Passing this legislation is an opportunity for senators and delegates to show that they’re all about democracy, that they love democracy.”
Cooper said the power of the vote is what allowed her to be elected to the Baltimore City Democratic Central Committee, where she represents Maryland’s 40th legislative district.
“I am a lover of democracy, so much so that I went from a jail cell to an elected official … The most glorious thing about me running for office is: No. 1 I had access to the ballot, and No. 2 people voted for me, a formerly incarcerated person,” she said.
During the 2020 election cycle, Cooper drove to every correctional facility in Maryland to spread awareness about voting rights for incarcerated people.
Nancy Soreng, co-president of the League of Women Voters of Maryland, said her organization provided incarcerated voters with the league’s nonpartisan voter guides, which included candidates’ answers to questionnaires and pros and cons of ballot questions, tailored to the ballots in each of Maryland’s jurisdictions.
Paikowsky said the coalition also worked with county election officials and correctional officials to put ballot drop boxes in correctional facilities to make it easier for incarcerated individuals to turn in their ballots on time.
Although these efforts improved voting access during the coronavirus pandemic, Paikowsky said “we can’t let that progress slip away.”
“This bill is part of a necessary step in making that progress permanent and ensuring that the state of Maryland didn’t do that one time, but does it every time,” she said.