Gov. Andrew Cuomo has signed legislation restoring voting rights to over 35,000 formerly incarcerated individuals convicted of a felony. The newly signed law changes the current election law requiring automatic restoration of voting rights upon a New Yorker’s release from prison.
Under the new system, criminal defendants will be informed before conviction and sentencing to prison that they will lose their voting rights. Prior to their release, the Department of Corrections and Probation and Parole will now be required to help the formerly incarcerated register to vote.
Formerly incarcerated people convicted of felony previously had to wait until they were discharged from parole before being permitted to vote, which, in some cases, could take years. A 2018 executive order gave the governor authority to provide discretionary pardons for the purpose of voting.
“Over the past several years, New York has been a national leader in election and criminal justice reforms, and felony disenfranchisement is a vestige of Jim Crow era voting restrictions,” Cuomo said. “I strongly believe that restoring the right to vote to people who have paid their debt to society strengthens our democracy, promotes successful reentry into the community, and makes New York a safer and fairer place to live.”
The bill was sponsored by State Sen. Leroy Comrie and Assembly Member Daniel O’Donnell. Both state legislative bodies passed the bill in April. In an interview with the AmNews, Comrie said it’s been an over decade-long journey to get the law passed since former Sens. Ruth Hassell-Thompson and Velmanette Montgomery introduced it in 2010.
“This will reduce recidivism and create a higher self-esteem in people that are coming out of their sentencing and going into parole,” he said “We didn’t do this to increase the number of voters, we did it to restore self-esteem and create a path to permanent reintroduction into society. They completed their time in the system and we wanted to give them every opportunity to find a new life.”
Sean Morales-Doyle, deputy director of the Voting Rights and Elections Program at the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law, said not allowing a formerly incarcerated person to vote is a form of Jim Crow law that barred Black Americans from casting their ballots.
“Due to the racial disparities in New York’s criminal justice system, nearly three-quarters of those disenfranchised by the ban on voting for people on parole were Black or Latino,” Morales Doyle said. “Now the law makes clear that they have a say in the elections that impact them and their families.”
VOCAL-NY board member Marilyn Reyes, who is formerly incarcerated, said the new law allows for voices in the community to finally be heard.
“When I came home from prison I was told I would never be able to vote again,” she said. “That was a lie, but I didn’t know. I eventually was able to register after my parole ended, but I couldn’t vote for several years. Now that won’t happen to anyone again and everyone with a record or who is on parole can vote right away.”
Maijia Scott, who is also formerly incarcerated and works with the organization The Ladies of Hope Ministries (LOHM), which provides safe housing reentry support for formerly incarcerated women, said that New Yorkers who served time now have the opportunity to make changes by having the power to vote.
“It gives us a chance to make choices and decisions whereas we’ve always been considered second-class citizens and it gives us a chance to be on equal standing with people who don’t have a criminal history,” Scott told the AmNews. “Most formerly incarcerated people are not going to take the voting process for granted. Ex-felons are going to take more of a stance now that they can vote and take advantage of what is available to them. By allowing us to vote, laws can change and conditions can be changed.”
The new law goes into effect immediately, however, the provisions of the bill that amend the elections law go into effect in 120 days.