Walter Lomax can still remember the day he cast his first vote in an election. The emotion in his voice changes as he takes a pause, attempting to put into words how it felt to exercise the right after serving 40 years, wrongly convicted, in a Maryland prison. “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 sixties, 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.” 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 was comprised of 1.4 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 tenant as to who we are as a country,” said Benetta Standly, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in the nation’s capitol. “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.