Last Friday, the New York State Senate Elections Committee held a hearing to discuss election reform bills currently before the Senate. Among the bills included was Senate Bill 1266, the Voting Rights Notification and Registration Act, sponsored by Senator Velmanette Montgomery. Similar bills have been passed by the Assembly twice before, but companion legislation has never before moved in the Senate. Friday’s hearing was an important step forward.
Brennan Center research has shown widespread and persistent confusion around the country regarding voter eligibility rules for people with criminal histories. New York is certainly no exception. Senate Bill 1266 would help eliminate this confusion and would educate individuals about their voting rights.
Interviews with election officials in New York found that more than one-third of county officials stated that people on probation are not eligible to vote (in fact, they are) and another third illegally required individuals to show documentation of eligibility in order to register to vote. The public is equally misinformed about the law. A Sentencing Project report found that almost half of New Yorkers with criminal convictions surveyed thought they were ineligible to vote while on probation, and almost 30% thought they were never eligible to vote again.
Senator Montgomery’s bill would help prevent these errors in the future by informing thousands of eligible voters in New York about their right to vote. Among other things, the bill would require significant training and public education on voting rights, and the Department of Corrections and probation and parole offices would have to provide individuals with voter registration forms and written information about their voting rights.
The hearing held by the Senate Elections Committee last week was an important first step. A three-person panel testified in favor of the bill. Brennan Center’s Erika Wood spoke about the history and continuing impact of New York’s law and Glenn Martin, from the Fortune Society, talked about how the loss of voting rights affects people who are leaving prison and reentering the community. Leonard Marks, retired Brooklyn Parole Bureau Chief, discussed how voting and community participation helps ease the transition from prison to the community and decrease recidivism.
The Senate’s newfound interest in voting rights is encouraging, and we hope that Senate Bill 1266 will pass quickly. There is much work to be done to correct years of misinformation and confusion, and to spread the word to thousands of eligible voters in New York that they do in fact have the right to vote.