One of Progressive Maryland’s top legislative priorities, voting rights for those returned to society from incarceration, was sealed Feb. 9 by the Senate override of Gov. Larry Hogan's 2015 veto.

/Progressive BlogSpace Report/ One of Progressive Maryland’s top legislative priorities, voting rights for those returned to society from incarceration, was put into place Feb. 9 as the General Assembly completed its override vote on Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto of the 2015 law that enabled those rights.

In a close vote that needed every senator in his or her seat, the Senate voted 29-18 to override the veto. The House of Delegates had overridden the veto weeks earlier 85-56, a few votes more than needed for an override. The Senate, however, mustered just enough Democratic votes to reverse the governor’s veto.

The override was the sixth of the governor’s six vetoes of bills passed in 2015, a tough pushback from an Assembly dominated by Democrats and wary of Hogan’s crowd-pleasing words and hard-right tactics.

“I’m proud of the step that our state has taken to allow returning citizens to be treated equally and with dignity and participate in the democratic process,” said Progressive Maryland executive director Larry Stafford. “I think it’s about time that the state of Maryland got rid of one of the last vestiges of the laws of the Jim Crow South. This is an important part of the broader criminal justice reform project that Progressive Maryland and other organizations are pursuing for the state.”

The law allows those convicted of a felony and imprisoned to register upon being released. Previously they were not eligible to register until they had completed probation or parole.  According to the Washington Post, “nearly 44,000 felons in Maryland who are currently on probation or parole will be eligible to vote because of the override.”

The bill will take effect in 30 days, giving newly eligible voters and their advocates a short time to register in time for the April 26 primary.

Sen. Joanne Benson, a Democrat from Prince George’s County, noted that a majority of those previously barred from voting were African American and that “the whole system is unfair.” She was quoted in the Baltimore Sun. Benson has agitated for years on behalf of young black men who have very little slack for mistakes in their lives and tumble into the justice system because of wrong-place, wrong-time episodes.

Advocates of overall criminal justice reform – another legislative priority for Progressive Maryland – point out that probation and parole are often arbitrarily or sloppily applied and liable to catch unwary subjects in a net of overlapping rules.

“This is a huge victory for voting rights,” Jane Henderson, executive director of Communities United, told the Post. Communities United is a Baltimore-based group that helps former inmates reenter society.

Republicans in both Assembly chambers voted against the overrides on party lines.

The overrides were a hot subject before the session even began in mid-January, but as the Senate vote approached advocacy organizations like Progressive Maryland upped the pressure, participating in an Annapolis demonstration as the session opened. The Senate vote was postponed several times to be sure that the full complement of Democrats – including a newly appointed one from Montgomery County – were available for the anticipated close vote. Gov. Hogan, meanwhile, kept up a vigorous social media campaign against the overrides.

On the eve of the Senate vote the City Council in Baltimore – where about half the disenfranchised ex-incarcerated live – voted unanimously in support of the override.

“Overall, the Sentencing Project estimates that roughly 5.85 million otherwise eligible Americans can’t cast a ballot due to felon disenfranchisement, according to the Atlantic magazine. Maine and Vermont allow not only released felons but incarcerated prisoners to vote, but many states are far tougher, and most of those disenfranchised are in red states like Florida.

The partisan split on the issue is frequently expressed as Hogan did, suggesting that the “debt to society” was not paid as long as the returning citizens were still under constraint of parole or probation. Many commentators point out, however, that the overrepresentation of minorities – African Americans and Latinos – in the post-incarceration population probably means that barring them from the polling places reduces Democratic votes. Those commentators suggest that suppressing Democratic votes is at the heart of the partisan split on the issue.

The Maryland Scramble blog, writing about Gov. Hogan’s response to the sixth and final override of his vetoes, called it “petulant.” The governor, without apparent evidence, declared that all but a “tiny, radical minority” of Marylanders opposed the original bill and supported his veto.