Walter Lomax can still remember the day he cast his first vote in an election after serving 40 years, wrongly convicted, in a Maryland prison.
His voice filled with emotion as he attempted to describe how it felt to exercise the long-denied right.
“I felt empowered,” said Lomax, sitting inside the Park Avenue Baltimore office where he now operates the Maryland Restorative Justice Initiative (MJRI). “Being someone who spent two-thirds of my life in prison, being free and able to participate was refreshing. I played a part in the process.”
Not a hint of bitterness can be detected as the slender, tall man, now in his early 60s, reflects on the day he entered a Baltimore booth in 2007, just one year after his release, to vote for a slew of offices from mayor to city council members.
“Now if we need a speed bump in our neighborhood, a stoplight, or a playground I can have a say, because if you look in the records, you’ll see that I am a voting constituent,” he said.
According to the Sentencing Project, a research and advocacy organization, one in 40 Americans stand to become disenfranchised even after they have served their time.
That statistic is significantly higher when it comes to the African American population, where one in every 13 over the age of 18 has lost the right to vote.
Across the nation, many states have changed laws regarding voter rights for those who have been behind bars. An estimated 5.3 million ex-felons were left out of the 2008 election. That number included 1.4 million African American men.
“There are well over 5 to 5.2 million people with past felony convictions who are currently not able to participate in the democratic process of voting, which is a fundamental tenet as to who we are as a country,” said Benetta Standly, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). “This is particular pervasive in the Deep South, where there is a history of disenfranchising African Americans.”
Only Maine and Vermont have no restrictions when it comes to felons and voting, as both states allow prisoners to vote through absentee ballot while still serving their time in prison. In Massachusetts, felons are allowed to vote only after they are released from prison. They are unable to vote while serving time.
The constitutional disenfranchisement in Maryland had been in place since the Maryland Constitution was signed on June 4, 1851. Maryland restored voting rights to felons in 2007 for men and women who have served their time, paid all fines, and satisfied all parole and probation requirements.
The laws vary from state to state.
In Washington, D.C., people who have been released on parole or probation can vote.
“As Americans, we all believe in second chances,” said Sarah Massey, spokeswoman for Project Vote, a national voting rights organization headquartered in downtown D.C. “You do your time and you come out and as Americans, you should participate in our democracy. It is your right.”
Felons in Florida saw their automatic right to vote restored in 2007, only to have Gov. Rick Scott reverse the decision in March of last year. Floridians now have a five-year waiting period before their right to vote is restored. The same five-year period is in effect in Delaware.
Those who have served prison time in Kentucky fill out an application to have their rights restored. Only a governor can give an executive pardon and give that right back.
Standly says that education alone could go a long way in making sure that ex-felons are aware of their rights when it comes to the ballot box.
“I think a lot of it has to do with the lack of education when people are exiting the penal system. They are not informed that this right is automatically restored after they complete their sentence and get out,” Standly said. “We really do need them engaged in the democratic process. We truly are not a democracy if we exclude this segment of our population.”
Public libraries, fire stations, schools, post offices and a wealth of other public offices are all places where anyone, including ex-felons, can register to vote.
Lomax admits that while in prison, he didn’t think about the loss of his vote much, but he now ties this right to feeling like a productive member of society.
Without partaking in the social, political, and economic aspects of one’s community, Lomax said it is easy to lose touch with the outside world.
“When you’re fully able to participate in those three areas of society, you tend to feel much more complete, and when any one of those elements are missing, it is immediately noticed,” he said.
Nearly 6 million ex-felons run the risk of becoming disenfranchised in the 2012 general election taking place Nov. 6.
New America Media