Monday, the New York Senate committee on elections will join the committee on crime in holding public hearings in Albany and Hicksville. For a state government notorious for operating behind closed doors, this should be a welcome development. After all, it has been over five years since the Elections Committee has held a single public hearing. And there are so many things wrong with New York’s election laws that its Legislature could surely benefit from hearing from the frustrated public. But it doesn’t seem the senators that called for these hearings are interested in fixing the many problems with New York’s elections. Instead, they have made clear they intend to attack Governor Cuomo’s decision to bring the state into line with 16 other states and D.C. by allowing people living in their communities on parole to vote.
Every state but two takes voting rights away from people convicted of felonies for at least some period of time. But in roughly a third of the states, including most of those in the Northeast, voting rights are restored to citizens when they leave prison and return to their communities. For decades, New York has lagged behind. New York has been one of only a handful of states that allow people on probation to vote but bar people on parole from the polls. This policy has caused bewilderment among everyone from election officials to prospective voters themselves about who is eligible to vote. Most people don’t know the difference between probation and parole, and the consequences for registering or voting while ineligible are potentially severe. This means that many people on probation, who are legally able to vote have faced de factodisenfranchisement as a result of confusion and fear.
The consequences of New York’s disenfranchisement law have fallen disproportionately on people of color, who make up nearly three-quarters of those on parole. This disparity is not an accident. New York’s law, like a number of others across the country, has its roots in Jim Crow-era attempts to evade the Fifteenth Amendment’s mandate that African American men be given the right to vote.
The Legislature could easily fix this problem by passing a bill that has been introduced year after year to no avail. But in the meantime, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced last April that he would begin using his pardon power to restore voting rights to anyone living in the community and successfully completing the terms of their state parole. He has since restored the vote to more than 24,000 New Yorkers. Though commendable, it is by no means a perfect solution to the problem. Each month, the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision must provide a list of everyone released on parole to the governor’s staff, which then must conduct a review and grant pardons on an individual basis. Not only is this a cumbersome process but it creates a lag in rights restoration and leaves room for continued confusion among election officials about who is actually eligible to register.
But rather than trying to finally fix the problem, the senators calling next week’s hearings advocate for rolling back even the progress made by the governor. They have attacked Cuomo’s decision to restore voting rights by focusing on the seriousness of the crimes a few of the people on parole committed, suggesting that it is a threat to public safety to allow people to vote.
That rhetoric, which plays on people’s fears, also reflects a misguided approach to criminal justice. The fact is that we depend on our criminal justice system, including police, prosecutors, judges, correctional officers, and the parole board, to determine the right consequences for committing a crime. We also depend on that system to determine when someone has served their time and is fit to return to our community. Our criminal justice system has made an individualized determination that every single person on parole is ready to return to society. The same system has made the same determination about people on probation. Reasonable people might disagree about whether each of those decisions is made correctly, but, withholding voting rights from every person on parole simply because we are offended by the crimes committed by a handful of those people doesn’t make sense. And there is simply no logic to treating people on parole differently than those on probation.
Nor does disenfranchising people on parole serve any legitimate criminal justice goal. In fact it conflicts with the important goals of rehabilitation and reintegration. We all have an interest in making sure that everyone returning to our communities is reintegrated in as healthy a way as possible. Denying people the right to vote sends a message that they are not welcome, their voices do not matter, and they are not truly citizens. We should instead encourage behaviors that require people to contemplate what is best for society and how they fit into the bigger picture. There are few activities that fit that description better than voting. For that reason, a number of professional organizations of correctional officers, including the American Probation and Parole Association and the Association of Paroling Authorities International, have passed resolutions encouraging the automatic restoration of voting rights to people upon release from prison.
Any move by the Senate Elections Committee toward an open, transparent, and democratic approach to government should be commended. But it would be a shame if the first hearings in years were held for the purpose of discouraging and villainizing the most democratic activity of all — voting. There is much work for the Senate to improve New York’s systems of democracy and justice. Neither will be served by denying people who live in our communities the right to participate in our democracy.