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New Promise for Restoring Voting Rights in New York

For the first time in recent memory, two state Assembly committees passed a bill to restore voting rights to 40,000 people with past criminal convictions now living in New York’s communities — working, paying taxes, and raising families.

  • Kwame Akosah
June 20, 2016

For the first time in recent memory, two New York Assembly commit­tees passed a bill that would restore voting rights to 40,000 people with past crim­inal convic­tions now living in New York’s communit­ies — work­ing, paying taxes, and rais­ing famil­ies. Though the full Assembly did not vote on the bill, passage in two commit­tees shows a grow­ing momentum for rights restor­a­tion in the state.

New York’s current law disen­fran­chises indi­vidu­als on parole but not on proba­tion. The bill, A. 7634, would restore voting rights to people on parole, and end a confus­ing and punit­ive policy that dispro­por­tion­ately harms people of color and their communit­ies. A 2006 Bren­nan Center study revealed that more than one-third of New York’s local elec­tion boards incor­rectly stated that people on proba­tion were ineligible to vote. This kind of misin­form­a­tion chills polit­ical parti­cip­a­tion even among eligible would-be voters.

Change is also neces­sary to alle­vi­ate a burden that has fallen dispro­por­tion­ately on New York­ers of color and their communit­ies. Nearly three-quar­ters of disen­fran­chised citizens on parole are African Amer­ican or Latino. The law and its dispar­ate effects are rooted in New York’s Jim Crow past. The state’s disen­fran­chise­ment provi­sion was enacted in 1874 as part of a concer­ted effort to exclude recently enfran­chised African-Amer­ican men from parti­cip­at­ing in the polit­ical process in the wake of the Recon­struc­tion Amend­ments. The state’s current provi­sion remains nearly identical to the one enacted all those years ago.

Amend­ing the law would also serve public safety. Voting is an import­ant pro-social activ­ity that can aid citizens in their trans­ition out of incar­cer­a­tion and into product­ive and engaged roles in their communit­ies. That is why a broad range of New York-based organ­iz­a­tions, includ­ing the Bren­nan Center, advoc­ated for the bill with letters of support. Nation­ally, the support for rights restor­a­tion includes crim­inal justice profes­sion­als like Amer­ican Proba­tion and Parole Asso­ci­ation. And that support is bolstered by research indic­at­ing that persons with crim­inal convic­tions are less likely to return to prison if their voting rights are restored.

New York’s prom­ising move­ment comes at a time when nation­wide momentum for rights restor­a­tion is stronger than ever. In April, Virginia Gov. Terry McAul­iffe (D) used his exec­ut­ive author­ity to restore voting rights to over 200,000 people who have completed their sentences — one of the largest restor­a­tion actions in recent memory. And in Febru­ary, super-major­it­ies in both houses of the Mary­land legis­lature voted to over­ride a gubernat­orial veto to restore voting rights to more than 40,000 people with past convic­tions.  

This legis­la­tion’s advance­ment is encour­aging, but of course more work remains in the fight to finally restore the vote. The legis­lat­ive session ended Friday without a vote on the Assembly floor or a hear­ing in the Senate, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo has not mentioned rights restor­a­tion as a legis­lat­ive prior­ity for 2016. But 2017 repres­ents an oppor­tun­ity for last­ing progress, and the state’s lead­ers should seize it. 

(Photo: AP)