New York's Felon Voting Bar has Deep Roots in Jim Crow

February 12, 2010

A new study highlights the disturbing legacy of laws enacted nearly 140 years ago --  still in force today

For Immediate Release: February 12, 2010
Contact: Jeanine Plant-Chirlin, 212-998-6289

New York – A new study of New York’s constitutional history traces the state’s current felony disenfranchisement law to a century-long effort to keep African-American citizens out of the voting booth.

“The report makes it disturbingly clear: Jim Crow was not confined to the South,” said Erika Wood, author of Jim Crow in New York and Brennan Center attorney.

Charles J. Ogletree, Jr., Jesse Climenko Professor of Law at Harvard, wrote the Introduction and called the study “remarkable.”

“At a time when we congratulate ourselves as a society on our progress in the struggle for racial equality, those of us who refuse to be satisfied until all votes – and all people – are of equal worth must reenergize to fight against felony disenfranchisement,” Professor Ogletree wrote in the Introduction to the report.

Today, New York’s Election Law disenfranchises people while in prison and on parole.

“The voting bar in the current constitution is nearly identical to the one enacted 140 years ago, and it continues to have its intended effects: Today, 80% of those currently disenfranchised in New York are African-American or Latino,” Wood continued.

Jim Crow in New York reveals that at the very time the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments forced the state to remove its nefarious property requirements for African-American voters, the Empire state changed its law from allowing to requiring the disenfranchisement of those convicted of “infamous” crimes.

“Our history is marked by successful struggles to expand the franchise, to include those barred because of race, class or gender,” Wood explained. “And yet, there remains one significant blanket barrier to the franchise. 5.3 million American citizens are not able to vote because of a felony conviction and as many as 4 million of these people live, work, and raise families in the community.”

If current rates of incarceration continue, approximately one in three of the next generation of black men will be disenfranchised at some point during their lifetime.

Among the report's recommendations:

  • New York should restore voting rights to people on parole; 
  • The New York Legislature should enact notice and public education requirements;
  • The State Board of Elections should initiate a public communications campaign to educate New Yorkers about voter registration for people with felony convictions; and
  • The State Board of Elections should launch a statewide campaign to educate and register voters in minority communities.

The report details debates among New York delegates dating back to 1777 at several constitutional conventions. At New York’s Constitutional Convention in 1867, Delegate H.C. Murphy stated that the extension of the franchise was morally and socially wrong, and that it would “confound the races, and … destroy the fair fabric of democratic institutions, which has been erected by the capacity of the white race.”

There are currently several bills pending in the New York State Assembly and Senate that would restore the voting rights to those on parole and inform individuals with prior convictions of their voting eligibility.

In 2009, Senator Montgomery and Assemblyman Wright introduced the Voting Rights Notification and Registration Act. The bill would require the Department of Corrections and the Board of Parole to provide individuals information about their voting rights once they regained eligibility. The bill passed the full Assembly in June 2009 and is currently pending in the Senate Elections Committee. In April 2009, Erika Wood testified in favor of this bill.

Also in 2009, Assemblyman O’Donnell and Senator Thompson introduced a bill to restore the voting rights to people on parole. The bills have been referred to the Assembly Committee on Election Law and the Senate Committee on Elections.

The Democracy Restoration Act, introduced in July, is federal legislation that seeks to restore voting rights in federal elections to the nearly 4 million disenfranchised Americans who are out of prison and living in the community. The bill was introduced by Senator Russell Feingold (D-WI) and Representative John Conyers (D-MI). See more information on the DRA.

For more information or to set up an interview with Erika Wood, please contact Jeanine Plant-Chirlin at 212-998-6289 or jeanine.plant-chirlin@nyu.edu.