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Contrary to widespread belief, felons have right to vote

Felons in New York lose their right to vote if they’re incarcerated or on parole, unless they’ve been given special permission by a judge or parole board. But many felons — and the general public — erroneously believe all felons are forever stripped of their right to cast a ballot.

Published: October 9, 2008

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Only two weeks out of prison for his latest felony conviction, former Rochester community activist Kenneth B. Barksdale shivered in a cold wind the other day as he began a new crusade.

Wearing steel chains on his wrists and ankles and clutching an eye-popping sign that featured the words “Negro Slave For Sale” over a photo of the Statue of Liberty, Barksdale, an African-American, stood in front of the Federal Building to protest a state law that prohibits him from voting because he’s on parole.

“I feel that they’re kidnapping my future and holding me hostage to my past,” he said as the wind whipped his sign and spatters of cold rain fell.

Barksdale’s frustration illustrates an issue that has arisen as Friday’s deadline approaches to register voters for the Nov. 4 election.

Felons in New York lose their right to vote if they’re incarcerated or on parole, unless they’ve been given special permission by a judge or parole board. But many felons — and the general public — erroneously believe all felons are forever stripped of their right to cast a ballot.

“That’s a common misconception,” said Sue Porter, coordinator of the Judicial Process Commission of Rochester.

Under state law, felons who were incarcerated or on parole can register to vote again once they’re freed of either restriction. For Barksdale, that time comes when he finishes parole in September 2009.

Felons who are sentenced to probation never lose their right to vote. Neither do people convicted of misdemeanors.

But word-of-mouth on the street often trumps the law, according to volunteers for agencies involved in voter-registration drives.

Paul Brayer, a board member of the Interfaith Alliance of Rochester and a volunteer for the Rochester Voters Alliance, recalls talking to a woman who at first quietly rebuffed his efforts to register her to vote with the pained answer, “I can’t.”

When he pressed her and found she believed she couldn’t vote because of a felony conviction years earlier, Brayer explained that she could register.

“The smile on her face kept me going for two days,” he said. “She said, 'I’ve been wanting to vote for years.'”

About 100,000 people are convicted of felonies every year in the state, the New York Civil Liberties Union said. About 62,300 felons are on probation and 12,100 are released annually from parole supervision.

A study by the Sentencing Project, a national justice reform group, shows that a majority of felons were misinformed about their voting rights. In addition, a study by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law found that 38 percent of the employees of New York's board of elections didn’t know that felons on probation could vote.

Thirty-five states limit the voting rights of an estimated 5.3 million convicted felons, according to the Brennan Center, which proposes the automatic reinstatement of voting rights once convicts are released from prison in those states.

Tom Ferrarese, Democratic commissioner of the Monroe County Board of Elections, said he and Republican Commissioner Peter Quinn make regular voter-registration outreaches that include information about felons’ voting rights. He also said he believes most employees of his office know the law.

“I think our people are pretty good,” he said. “When we get new people we’re pretty adamant about training, although it’s possible that some new hires might not know all the rules.”

In New York City, the New York Civil Liberties Union has begun a campaign, complete with a video billboard in Times Square, to inform those with criminal records about their right to vote.

In the Rochester area, the drive is more sedate and is part of the Rochester Voters Alliance, a joint nonpartisan effort of 25 nonprofit civil rights agencies to enroll voters in areas that typically have the lowest voting percentages — predominantly inner-city Rochester. The formation of the alliance was spearheaded during the 2004 presidential campaign by the Interfaith Alliance and the League of Women Voters.

Volunteers hit the Public Market and some Tops stores. They also made themselves available at the agencies to encourage visitors to register.

At the Judicial Process Commission, Lisa Moose, a case manager hired through AmeriCorps, and Sheila White regularly buttonhole clients about whether they’re registered.

Moose said it’s not unusual to find clients who believe they can’t vote because of a criminal record. “A lot of them are surprised when they find out they can,” she said.

Lawyer Jason Hoge, lead counsel for the Monroe County Legal Assistance Center's Re-Entry Project for criminal offenders, said it’s fundamentally unfair to limit felons’ voting rights.

“These are people who stepped outside the bounds of society and that’s exactly why they were punished,” he said. “Now they’re coming back and we want to bring them back into the fold. When we say they’re not eligible to vote, we’re putting them on the periphery. We’re saying, 'We don’t trust you.'”

Gary Pudup, director of the Genesee Valley Civil Liberties Union, said there’s a practical side to encouraging eligible felons to register.

“The message should be, 'Fine, you made a mistake, and now you’re part of us again,'” he said. “When people feel that they’re part of the community, they’re less likely to violate the rules.”

For Barksdale, the restriction smacks of what he calls a plantation mentality that he said prevents him and other felons from being rehabilitated and becoming fully productive members of society again.

Barksdale came out of prison for a robbery conviction to run an anti-violence program in Rochester in the 1990s before succumbing to the streets again on illegal-weapons and drug convictions. He admits he messed up. But he believes that being able to vote — as he did in five previous presidential elections — is fundamental to his ability to stay clean.

“This is America, for crying out loud,” he said. “I paid my debt to society … and now I’m told that because I’m still on parole I can’t vote in this election.”

In August, while still a prisoner at Gouverneur Correctional Facility in St. Lawrence County, he filed a lawsuit against the state in U.S. District Court in Buffalo, claiming he’s being denied his right to vote in violation of his constitutional rights to speak his voice and enjoy equal protection under the law. The suit is pending.

The irony, Barksdale said, is that as a parolee he’s expected to get a job and pay taxes, but he has no say in who his elected representatives will be.

“My argument is that it’s taxation without representation,” he said. “It’s what people fought and died for years ago.”

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