Should Maryland give felons on probation and parole a right to vote?

The Maryland legislature will soon decide, perhaps by a margin of a single vote, whether to override Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto and extend voting rights to some classes of felons on parole or probation. A few thoughts:

  • The proposed change would replace a reasonably bright-line, understandable rule on felons and voting (finish your sentence first) with a mishmash new standard that would spread confusion among voters and elections boards and is based on no coherent rationale. Clear rules of predictable and understandable application are desirable for their own sake and especially important in voting, an area in which confusion and disagreement about legality bring special dangers. That’s one reason the editorial advisory board of the Daily Record, the newspaper of the Maryland legal profession, says Gov. Hogan’s veto should stand and that there are other, better ways to pursue the goal of reintegration for offenders.
  • Proponents offer what they claim is evidence that restoring a right to vote earlier promotes rehabilitation of offenders. It is very difficult to separate correlation from causation on this, however. Yes, well-rehabilitated offenders are more likely to vote, but that does not mean that the second caused the first.
  • Proponents also argue that earlier recovery of voting privileges is needed to combat stigma. A couple of thoughts on that: First, all criminalization necessarily stigmatizes unless the public stops believing that criminality ordinarily relates to guilt, in which case we are in very big trouble for other reasons. Second, parole/probation involves continued deprivation of a comprehensive bundle of civil rights, many of which would otherwise be of constitutional standing, such as travel, association, firearms access, and so forth. Of these, I suspect losses in areas like travel and association are far more stigmatizing than loss of a voting right because they often must be explained to others (“sorry, I can’t come to your wedding because…”). With voting, we have a secret ballot and a system set up so as generally to protect people from “You didn’t vote last week and I need to know why” social pressure.

Both sides bring ideological preconceptions to this dispute. But of all the ways in which one might address Maryland’s genuine problems of over-criminalization and over-incarceration, it seems especially a token of ideological faith to have settled on this one as a key priority.

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