Poll worker Cynthia Deloach helps Reginald Smith, 53, vote at a polling station in Baltimore. Photo / Washington Post
Reginald Smith stood at the corner of West North and Pennsylvania avenues, the epicentre of the riots that erupted in Baltimore a year ago, and gripped a sample Democratic primary ballot.
By the time he sat down in front of the computer screen on Friday at a nearby early-voting centre, he shook his head, almost in disbelief. He was about to register his choice for mayor, US Senate and president.
“I’m actually nervous,” said Smith, who last voted more than two decades ago – before he went to prison for 14 years for attempted murder.
The worker at the polling place assured Smith, who has been on parole for four years, that he would be fine. She was there if he needed any assistance.
Maryland has gone even further. In 2007, a law was passed to allow convicted criminals to vote after they completed their parole and probation. Last year, the legislature approved a bill to restore voting rights to those who, like Smith, are still on parole and probation.Smith is one of nearly 44,000 convicted criminals in Maryland whose voting rights were restored this year by the legislature over the objections of Republican Governor Larry Hogan. On Saturday NZT, Virginia Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe announced that he will make all felons in his state eligible to vote in the presidential election, allowing about 200,000 people who are not in prison or on probation to register to vote.
Hogan vetoed the measure, arguing that as felons they should not be able to vote until they complete parole and probation, which he considers part of their punishment. But the General Assembly voted in February to override the veto – putting Maryland at the forefront of a movement to restore voting rights for more than five million people across the country.
John Comer, a director at Communities United, an advocacy group that pushed for Maryland’s new law, said that providing Smith and others with a chance to vote is a step towards removing the stigma and shame of their past.
“For many of them,” Comer said, “this is an opportunity to move forward.”
Smith, who is active in Communities United, joined dozens of other ex-offenders in the gallery of the Senate chamber to witness the legislature’s vote.
“I feel empowered,” Smith said afterward. “I’m not going to use the word ‘whole,’ but it makes me feel more of a citizen.”
Two months later, on the final day of early voting in Baltimore, he was ready to make his voice heard.
Smith didn’t want to discuss the December day in 1999 when he nearly ended another person’s life.
“It’s really hard to talk about – you don’t want to relive it, and you don’t want your victim to relive it,” he said. “There’s the victim’s family. And my family is a victim, too.”
Smith, who had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, said the violence started with an argument with a friend in Baltimore County. It ended with him walking downstairs to call the police.
Everything in between, Smith said, is hazy.
“I couldn’t explain why,” he said. “I didn’t know why.”
He was charged with rape and attempted murder. Although the rape charge wasn’t pursued, he pleaded guilty to second-degree attempted murder, which landed him in the Maryland Correctional Institution in Hagerstown for 14 years.
When he was released from prison four years ago, he moved in with his mother, who lives in West Baltimore.
“I’m 53 years old and stuck in my mother’s house,” he said. “That there is more embarrassing than anything else in my life.”
Before he went to prison, he had served seven years in the Army National Guard and worked as a bounty hunter and a security guard.
These days, he’s too disabled from diabetes to work. He has an unsteady gait and trouble seeing. His doctors, he said, have told him that his heart is weak from battling diabetes for 30 years.
He takes pride in his work with Communities United. Several times over the past year, the group has rallied in Annapolis on Lawyer’s Mall and the steps of the Maryland State House telling legislators that felons who are allowed to vote are less likely to return to prison and more likely to become reintegrated into their communities.
Trina Ashley, 54, throws her hand in the air at Ward 6 in Baltimore to celebrate voting for the first time in her life. Photo / Washington Post
His advocacy, which includes pushing for access to jobs and housing for those newly released from prison, will likely not benefit him, he said. But he hopes to help others who have been convicted of crimes.
“It’s not about me. It’s about the others who are still inside that need help,” Smith said. “This is so when they do come from behind the wall, they can start getting better for themselves.”
On the day that Maryland’s new law took effect, Smith was one of the first felons to leave a Communities United rally outside the Baltimore City Board of Elections office. He was eager to get inside that office to turn in his paperwork.
The last ballot he can remember casting was for Kurt Schmoke, Baltimore’s first African American mayor, who served from 1987 to 1999. But Smith admits that he wasn’t a regular voter.
“I wasn’t active like I should have been,” he said. “But then again, it was my right to vote or not.”
He was in prison when Barack Obama, America’s first black president, was elected.
Now he’s been following the presidential campaign – “a three-ring circus” – as well as the crowded mayoral race.
It feels good that I have a voice
After attending a recent candidate’s forum in Baltimore, Smith was leaning towards voting for Democrat Carl Stokes, a Baltimore City Council member making his second run for the mayor’s seat.
His reason: The candidates had similar platforms, but Stokes did not arrive late to the forum, which was designed for the candidates to talk to parolees, or leave early.
“If you can’t sit and listen to us for three hours,” Smith said, “how can I trust you to listen when you get elected?”
By voting day, he had reconsidered. On his sample ballot, a dark circle was filled next to State Senator Catherine Pugh’s name.
Why the change?
“My momma,” he said. “She knew more about her than I did.”
He had decided to vote for Hillary Clinton because, he said, she “is the only one who can beat Trump.”
He showed the sample ballot to the poll worker who had offered to help him cast his ballot.
“Okay, these are my people right here,” Smith said, pointing to the names he’d marked off.
He was joined by several other newly enfranchised voters, including Trina Ashley, 54. She raised her hands in victory as she walked away from the election booth.
“First time ever voted,” Ashley shouted. “It feels good.”
The dozen workers and other voters applauded.
Smith said he felt “great” after casting his ballot. For the first time in decades, he’d had an impact on the future of his country and his city.
“It feels good that I have a voice,” he said. “I have a say in who may be getting in office. For so long, I didn’t have a say in nothing. When I was locked up, I didn’t have a say. It just feels good. And now I’m going to see where it leads.”