Voting Rights Restoration Efforts in New York

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

April 18, 2018

On April 18, 2018, Governor Cuomo announced that he would restore the right to vote to New Yorkers on parole through Executive Order 181. The new policy could enfranchise approximately 35,000 New Yorkers living and working in their communities. Prior to this announcement, New Yorkers were disenfranchised until the completion of incarceration and parole.

Disenfranchisement in New York

With Governor Cuomo’s announcement, New York appears poised to join sixteen other states and Washington, D.C., that already allow everyone living in the community to vote. The order instructs the Commissioner of the Department of Corrections to submit a list of individuals on parole to the Governor's Office for review, whereupon he or she is considered for a pardon to restore voting rights. New Yorkers on probation are eligible to vote. Individuals on parole who have no more than one felony conviction may apply to have their voting rights restored by a Certificate of Relief from Disabilities or a Certificate of Good Conduct.

This change in New York’s law will remedy the widespread confusion that has been caused by the distinction between people on parole and those on probation. A 2006 Brennan Center survey found that over a third of New York’s local boards of elections incorrectly responded that New Yorkers on probation are not eligible to vote, or did not know whether they were eligible. And nearly a third of boards illegally requested documentation from New Yorkers with past convictions who were seeking to register to vote. This misinformation exacerbates the impact of disenfranchisement by incorrectly convincing eligible citizens that they cannot vote.

As discussed in the 2010 Brennan Center report Jim Crow in New York, New York’s disenfranchisement policy has been firmly rooted in historical racism. Today, the disenfranchisement provision in New York’s constitution is nearly identical to the provision enacted in 1876 amidst a concerted effort to resist enfranchising black men. And the law continues to have a dramatic impact on people of color: nearly three-quarters of disenfranchised New Yorkers on parole are African American or Latino. The executive order announced by Governor Cuomo will help distance New York from its racist past.

Legislative Efforts

  • 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.