Friday, June 22, 2007

Time to look to Governor Spitzer?

The Assembly took a step in the right direction yesterday by passing A554, the Voting Rights Notification and Registration Act. This bill, introduced by Assemblyman Keith Wright, seeks to clear the fog of misinformation and confusion that currently surrounds the voting rights of people with felony convictions in New York.

The bill would amend the election code to require clear and systematic notice to individuals of their voting rights once they regain their eligibility. It will also require criminal justice agencies to provide assistance with voter registration and voting by absentee ballot, and will assure that corrections and elections agencies share the data necessary to verify voter eligibility.

While New York election law disfranchises only those individuals incarcerated or on parole because of a felony conviction, there is a widespread misunderstanding of the law among affected communities and elections officials. A 2005 report by The Sentencing Project found that close to 60 percent of New Yorkers under the supervision of the criminal justice system did not know that an individual on probation could vote, and more than 60 percent reported that no one ever informed them of their voting rights.

A 2006 survey by the Brennan Center and Demos found that approximately half of New York's 63 local boards of elections were not aware of the eligibility requirements. Thousands of eligible New Yorkers may have been misinformed as a result.

The New York State Board of Elections has since taken steps to educate elections officials about the voting rights of people with felony convictions. Nevertheless, this legislation is necessary to both remedy past errors and to ensure that these errors are not allowed to continue.

Given that there was no companion legislation in the Senate and the legislative session ends in a matter of hours, the bill’s passage in the Assembly will not result in a change in New York law. Unfortunately, bill A554 is destined to be the 23rd bill in a period of eight years that attempted to ensure the voting rights of eligible New Yorkers with felony convictions but failed to become law. Going forward, advocates will look to Governor Spitzer to provide leadership on this important issue.

Judith Joffe-Block

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