Voting Rights Restoration Efforts in New York

A summary of current felony disenfranchisement policies and legislative advocacy in New York.

April 2, 2019

Last year in April, Governor Andrew Cuomo announced that he would begin using his pardon power to restore voting rights to New Yorkers on parole. With this announcement, New York joined sixteen other states and Washington, D.C., that already allow everyone living in the community to vote. New York’s legislature is currently considering legislation that would codify and improve upon the Governor’s action.

Disenfranchisement in New York

Until Governor Cuomo’s executive action, New York was one of only a handful of states that allowed people on probation to vote but disenfranchised those on parole – and it still does as a matter of law. Few people, including election administrators, know the difference between parole and probation, and this confusion has prevented many people on probation who were actually eligible to vote from voting.

New York’s disenfranchisement policy is also rooted in Jim Crow-era attempts to evade the Fifteenth Amendment’s mandate that Black men be given the right to vote. Today, the law continues to impact people of color at much higher rates: nearly three-quarters of everyone on parole is Black or Latino.

Governor Cuomo’s executive order is a step in the right direction, but legislation pending in the New York legislature, A. 4987 and S. 1931, would improve the law and the process dramatically. First, the legislation would codify the restoration of voting rights upon release from prison so no one has to rely on a discretionary pardon to vote. Second, by making restoration automatic, the legislation would eliminate the administrative burden of the pardon process. Finally, by providing a process for voter registration upon release, the legislation would ensure that the legal restoration of voting rights actually leads to registration and voting by impacted New Yorkers.

Legislative Efforts

  • In the spring of 2019, legislators introduced A. 4987 and S. 1931, which would restoring voting rights to people on parole. The legislation would also provide a process for voter registration upon release from prison. Most recently, Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas submitted a letter in support of the bill to the Elections Committee leaders and lead bill sponsors.
  • In 2018, a coalition of organizations led by National Action Network and the Brennan Center organized to meet with legislators and advocate for passage of legislation to restore rights to people on parole.
  • In the spring of 2016, A. 7634 passed both the Assembly Elections and Rules Committees — the furthest progress for a New York rights restoration bill in recent years. A number of organizations submitted letters in support of New York Assembly Bill 7634, including the Brennan Center, VOCAL-NY, SEIU 1199, Citizen Action, Working Families Party, Legal Action Center, Bend the Arc, and Community Service Society.
  • In August 2010, after many years of advocacy, New York passed a budget bill (A. 9706) that included a requirement that correctional facilities distribute voter registration application forms to people completing sentences.
  • In January 2009, legislators introduced A. 2266 and S. 1266, also known as the Voting Rights Notification and Registration Act. The legislation would have provided notice to individuals of their voting rights once they regained eligibility. The Brennan Center submitted a memorandum in support of the bill, and testified before the Senate Elections Committee, as did The Fortune Society and retired Brooklyn Bureau Chief Leonard Marks.
  • In 2007, legislators introduced A. 554, a bill that required the state to notify people with past convictions when they regain their eligibility to vote, and required criminal justice agencies to provide voter registration assistance to eligible individuals exiting incarceration. Although the bill passed the full Assembly, the Senate refused to consider it. At the time, A. 554 was the 23rd bill of its kind to fail to become law in the previous eight years.

Brennan Center Public Education Efforts

Through the years, the Brennan Center has worked to improve New York’s disenfranchisement policies, including through education efforts aimed at decreasing de facto disenfranchisement of eligible New Yorkers.

  • In 2010, the Brennan Center published Jim Crow in New York, a publication that illuminated the racist history of disenfranchisement in New York.
  • In 2008, the Brennan Center worked with the Bronx Defenders and the NYC Department of Corrections to educate individuals at Riker's Island about their voting rights.  
  • In 2006, in order to address election officials’ incompliance with state law, the Brennan Center created training materials for state officials that clarify voting rights and registration procedures relating to people with criminal convictions, as well as drafted recommended language for automated phone messages and website postings and designed a poster on this issue. Counsel to the Board vouched for the Brennan Center’s scripts for county boards to use on their websites and automated telephone answering systems, and the Board incorporated these scripts.

Brennan Center Materials

Press

Brennan Center Publications

  • Restoring the Right to Vote, Erika Wood (2009)
    • The Brennan Center’s policy proposal for restoring voting rights for citizens with past criminal convictions.
  • My First Vote (2009)
    • Testimonials of individuals who regained their voting rights after being disenfranchised because of past criminal convictions.
  • De Facto Disenfranchisement, Erika Wood & Rachel Bloom (2008)
    • A report on how complex laws, poorly informed officials, and misinformation lead to the de facto disenfranchisement of citizens with past criminal convictions who are eligible to vote.
  • Racism & Felony Disenfranchisement: An Intertwined History, Erin Kelley (2017)
    • A piece examining the historical roots of criminal disenfranchisement laws that today strip voting rights from millions of U.S. citizens.

For more information about the Brennan Center’s work on Restoring Voting Rights in New York, please contact Makeda Yohannes, at makeda.yohannes@nyu.edu.