Gov. Jack Markell signed legislation Wednesday eliminating a law requiring Delawareans with felony convictions to pay all fines prior to voting.
Damien Townsend of Wilmington remembers watching television with his prison mates, seeing President Barack Obama win his presidential elections and thinking, ‘I wish I could vote for the man.’
He spent more than 11 years behind bars, and now that he’s released he can vote in his first election.
“It feels good to know I can make a change and make a difference in politics,” Townsend said. “It’s a beautiful thing.”
But any year earlier, Damian might wait years, or even a lifetime, to vote due to a law requiring those with felony convictions to pay off all their court and restitution fees before voting.
Gov. Jack Markell, D-Delaware, signed legislation Wednesday removing that requirement.
“It means everything to me,” Townsend said. “It’s a long time coming and I just think everybody incarcerated coming home should take full advantage—‘cause I am.”
The signing took place at the Achievement Center in Wilmington, an organization that helps ex-offenders reintegrate into society. Markell was joined by several of the bill’s sponsors, as well as Wilmington Mayor Dennis Williams, D-Wilmington, and other community leaders.
“There’s no way we can thrive as a city, county and state if we leave able-bodied people who want to contribute to society…on the fringe,” Markell said before signing the bill.
“We live in a time when people wonder if their voice really matters, if their vote really counts…The right to vote is the absolute bedrock of our country.”
The legislation, sponsored by State Sen. Margaret Rose Henry, D-Wilmington, and State Rep. Helene Keeley, D-Wilmington, is about 15 years in the making—and Delaware is the 40th U.S. state to adopt such a law.
“A lot of laws passed prior to my service in the General Assembly was a ‘three strikes you’re out, throw away the key’ attitude about people who make one mistake in their lives, and, ‘they have to pay for it forever and ever,’” Keeley said.
“If you drill this down to the civil concept of the right to vote, someone who has played by the rules since they’ve been out of prison, someone who is paying property tax, someone who is paying income tax, they have a job—yet they can’t vote in their child’s schoolboard elections. There’s something fundamentally wrong about that.”
Prior to 2000 anyone convicted of a felony permanently lost their right to vote in Delaware. Following that year, ex-offenders could vote five years after release from prison and after paying all their fines.
In 2013 the General Assembly amended the Delaware constitution to remove the five-year waiting period.
However, many ex-offenders still were denied access to voting because they had to wait until they paid what could be thousands of dollars in fees—which for some, could take a lifetime.
“It can be so lengthy, because individuals being released are coming home to financial stricken situations,” said Grandville Brown of Connections CSP, an organization providing support services to a variety of individuals.
“Everybody [doesn’t] have a good job, it’s hard to find a job, especially when you have a felony, and it’s hard to have a livable wage and sustainability. So that’s hard in itself—and then you have to pay fines and restitutions. It may be some cases where individuals would never have a chance to vote because the fines are so big.”
This year the new legislation passed in the Senate with a 16-4 vote, but only with a 21-16 vote in the House. Henry said she’s pleased the bill she’s fought so hard for is finally law.
“You and I can owe a traffic fine or something, yet we can vote. So this was not fair, it was not part of the democracy where everyone is treated fairly,” she said.
“All people have to vote for the people they think can represent us, and I think that will make a difference in the election.”
Brown said many of his clients express the desire to vote, and he said he believes the new law will make a vast difference in their lives.
“It will help them feel they have a stake in their community,” he said. “A lot of times for individuals to change their mind state you have to feel like you’re part of the solution as opposed to the problem.”
Townsend said he feels he now has a voice and can vote for candidates he believes will truly make a difference in his community.
“There are so many individuals locked up in prison that want to vote that can’t vote,” he said. “But now this bill is signed into law they can vote, and they can make a difference and it won’t be the status quo of what’s going on around here no more.“