Baltimore community organizer Perry Hopkins, 55, is looking forward to stepping into a voting booth for the first time in his life this election season. Hopkins lost his never-exercised right to vote when he was convicted for drug and other offenses. He gained it back last month when Maryland joined a growing list of U.S. states making it easier for ex-convicts to vote. “To have the right to vote now is empowering. I’m stoked,” said Hopkins, who spent a total of 19 years in prison for non-violent crimes, and was one of 40,000 in the state to regain his right to vote from a legislative action. “I plan to vote in every election possible. I’m voting for mayor, I’m voting for city councilman in my district, and, yes, I’m voting for president,” said Hopkins. He hopes to vote for former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the front-runner in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, on Nov. 8. Hopkins is among some 800,000 Americans who have regained the right to vote in the last two decades as about two dozen states have eased restrictions on felons casting ballots, according to the Sentencing Project, a prison reform advocacy group.
The restoration of voting rights has drawn support from both Democrats and Republicans as a way to improve prisoners’ reintegration into society. “The trend is to reconsidering policies and scaling back (restrictions). There are setbacks on the way, but the trend is in that direction,” said Mark Mauer, the Sentencing Project’s executive director.
Advocates contend it is also a way of promoting racial justice, as African-Americans are convicted of crimes and sent to prison at about twice the rate of the overall U.S. population.
Of the 5.8 million Americans banned from voting, 2.2 million are African-American, according to the group. In three states – Virginia, Florida and Kentucky – more than a fifth of black residents outside of prison are barred from casting a ballot. About 13 percent of the U.S. population is African-American.