On a West Baltimore street corner last week, John Comer launched the same conversation he’s begun hundreds of times in the past 22 days. “You registered to vote, bro?” he shouted. “Nah, nah,” Jeffrey Burns responded. “I got a felony.” “Everybody can vote now,” Comer told him. “We passed that law, just for that.” Burns, 54, stopped, shook his head in disbelief, then picked up a clipboard and registered to vote for what he said was the first time in his life. Activists from Communities United have been signing up hundreds of voters like Burns in West Baltimore neighborhoods and housing projects since March 10, the day a new state law went into effect that allows people with felony convictions to register to vote as soon as they are released from prison. Before that, they had to finish probation or parole.
In an instant, activists said, the law made an estimated 20,000 people in Baltimore and 40,000 statewide eligible to vote. More importantly, they said, it empowered thousands more like Burns, who wrongly believed he would never be eligible to vote again.
The law’s passage was fought by Gov. Larry Hogan, who vetoed it in 2015 and this year launched a social media publicity campaign attempting to prevent the legislature from overriding his veto.
Hogan and many fellow Republicans argued that people who have not completed their sentence have not repaid their debt to society and should not be able to participate in elections.