Voter Registration: our rights and the real time consequences of our penal system
A two part essay on re-entering society and reclaiming rights.
It is said that there are only so many plots, no truly new stories.
The parable of saving one starfish is the age old story of the underdog.
You know, the one about a child on a beach filled with starfish, washed up, dying. As she’s throwing one back into the ocean a grown up passing by asks “Why bother, they’re all going to die?”
“It matters to this one” she says as she tosses a starfish back to where it can survive.
Is the underdog the starfish or the little girl? We Americans are a nation of underdogs, trying to use the better angels of our nature to overcome the destructive aspects of our human nature.
There are real people languishing in our society, the forgotten, the out-of-sight, out-of-mind segment of society. They matter, they are part of us.
In our American society we have many rights and privileges to which we cling, in our beliefs and our actions. We vote, move about our land freely, speak our mind at will. Lot’s of things are easy once we know how to do them. After that it’s pretty hard to remember how we got the ability.
Voting rights are a great example — we Americans are born with them; all we have to do is grow up to the age of majority and use them. We don’t have to remember that anyone fought and died for them, or marched against the made up reasons given for some groups not to have them, or that America has been divided in many ways over her history. We don’t have to remember that plenty of people may not like any of us individually but they don’t have the right to take our rights. Until they do.
We can lose voting rights, specifically by being convicted of a felony; more generally by committing moral turpitude (the government’s power to determine the definition of morality). We have a system, but real people living life (with or without mistakes) are subject to the equally real people running the system, and are not always protected by the real rules.
This is the story of John, who admitted to an accusation that, while he was serving a 20 year sentence in state prison, was recanted by the accuser.
Rights at the end of a sentence
A crime is alleged, the trial yields guilty verdict, the convicted party, John, is accepting of the sentence, and goes where he is told. He admits his guilt, does not question the sentence, accepts the outcome. The amount of years appropriate for his sentence is debatable, but the main issue in part one of this essay is that the accuser recants the accusation after John has been in the system for 3 years. His conviction was vacated at that time, and John is eligible for release. It was seven years later, after serving 10 full years, that suddenly one day he is taken from prison in Hagerstown, Maryland to Court in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. This is a distance of 90 miles, 1–½ hour travel time by car, or, because this is the Washington, DC area, 3 hours plus.
John is transported with no warning; unable to take any of his possessions — clothing, money, etc. He arrives in court wearing only prison issue clothing. The judge has been informed of the recanting of the accusation, and that John has served 10 years. The judge releases John that day. John is free to go, but the clothes he is wearing are not, they are the property of the penal system of the State of Maryland. John is required to remove the prison issue clothing, and is given a pair of sweat pants and told he can go. He is escorted to the door of the building and must exit.
John is required to sign up for parole. To do that he has to re-enter the building. He is not allowed to re-enter because he does not have a shirt.
John begs for a call, to borrow a cell phone from a stranger. Someone agrees, and he calls a friend (from Alternatives to Violence avpusa.org) who worked with him at the federal prison. John then gets a shirt so that he can re-enter the courthouse to register for parole. He also has to go back to Hagerstown to retrieve his belongings from the prison.
Over the next few years John became an integral part of life for our extended network of friends. He is always ready to put in any or all waking hours to get a job done, or help a friend or stranger in need. I cannot believe that John is the only person who makes the most of what he has learned from his experience, or who has moved mountains to not get caught forever in our penal system. But he is one of the few that I know personally, and the only one I know well enough that I have learned about the horrors he experienced. Many of us turn away from the horror; we don’t have time or it just doesn’t apply to us. Except that it does, the faith we have in each other is a part of “faith” not an à la carte add-on belief. If we do not have faith that each of us can make positive changes, then who should have faith in us?
The dumping of released prisoners without a single resource is cruel. To then have requirements that must be accomplished without some resources is unconscionable. The penal system in our country is an exquisite example of cruel and unusual punishment, and as such is unconstitutional. That can be a focus of a future essay. Now to part 2, where I have some experience — voting.
Reclaiming Voting Rights after completing a sentence
Registering to vote is not complicated until you run into a snag; a line on the form you don’t understand; a typing error that causes a problem. In general, there is no help on hand.
Voter registration is done online, but you must have computer access.
So you go to the library, if you have transportation, and enough time off work to get there.
You have arrived online to register. The Maryland website has pretty clear area for registering to vote. The system will accept your answers through completion of the form unless you are already registered. This is checked by typing in your social security number.
All of the fields are for basic information — name address, have you ever been registered before. The question for people who have been convicted for a felony is straightforward as well. Are you eligible to vote because you have completed a felony conviction? If you answer yes, the system continues and the application is processed. You should receive a voter registration card in the mail in a couple of weeks.
But what if there is a glitch in the system when your records are confirmed?
In John’s case, the Board of Elections Office sent a letter to him stating, “In conducting a routine inquiry to determine your eligibility to register, the Office discovered or received information that you may be disqualified based on conviction of a felony”. The letter further requested that John send paperwork confirming his completion of sentence, requiring him to prove the State’s records of him.
There was no explanation of how they came to this conclusion, or whether the database for all penal system information was queried.
After receiving this request for more information, John was confused about which piece of paper they needed. A few months went by while he searched his records. Several months prior, John had tried to register at the Department of Motor Vehicles. They also turned him away. John works a full time job. He does work for several people when they need him; he is always overbooked. After being turned away by two state agencies the time investment became an insurmountable burden. The time these tasks take is real and it is costly for a person of limited means.
Johns was released in 2014. Maryland reinstated his rights according to the state website: “Effective, March 10, 2016, if you have been convicted of a felony and have completed serving a court-ordered sentence of imprisonment, you are eligible to register to vote”. John’s voter registration required people with resources (mostly time) who were willing and able to share a laptop, call a few offices, and visit the local Board of Elections in person for clarification. In the end the problem was actually that the database system was not effective in giving the correct information on his release, including the record of completion of sentence.
John received his Voter Registration card on January 31, 2020. It took approximately 14 months, but it’s done!
The passion of the vote
Your vote is as important to me as my own vote. The only way to know how we feel as a country (as individuals or sub-groups) is to communicate our opinions. That is done with our votes. The statistics generated by votes tell a real story, and while not complete, it is the best way we have to grasp the nuance of the similarities or difference between our opinions.
Voting is a right and a privilege for us in America. I believe it is an honor to have the means — time and education — to understand the history of what voting means to more people than me, and to be able to share my understanding and resources to help others who are but a half step away from participating in our democracy.
As of 2016 in Maryland an ex-felon, who has completed their sentence, can register to vote, which I believe is as it should be. Learning powerful lessons and completing a penalty, will make a majority of people better informed citizens and members of society.
But after being treated to daily confusion and humiliation by our “civilized” system, how can a person be expected to jump right back into the everyday social norms, much less figure out how to act on their rights; in particular the right to vote. Many things are more urgent than voting — holding a job, food, residence — but nothing is of greater importance.
Two underrated forces of human history are embarrassment and fatigue. We in the general populace are too embarrassed to admit we make mistakes in our penal system. The survivors of our penal system are too exhausted to protest.
We can do better, we can each make a difference to one starfish.