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.