Wednesday, August 04, 2010

New York Passes Two Landmark Democracy Reforms

This summer the New York legislature took decisive action to create two important policy reforms: requiring that people in prison be allocated to their home communities for redistricting purposes; and requiring criminal justice agencies to provide voting rights information to people who are again eligible to vote after a felony conviction. While Albany has long been labeled “dysfunctional,” these particular reforms actually stand to make aspects of our state government models for democratic fairness and participation.

Both proposals are long overdue and have been introduced again and again and again, and both have garnered strong support in the legislature. Nevertheless, political wrangling repeatedly stymied their progress. This year, democracy trumped politics. Well, not quite. The legislation was pushed through in the budget revenue bill with no public hearing or debate. We will continue to criticize Albany for passing legislation behind closed doors with no opportunity for public input. But that’s for another post. Here, we hail the result.

The first reform assures that long under-represented communities have a full and fair voice in our state government. At present, incarcerated individuals are counted for federal Census purposes as residents where they are incarcerated rather than as residents of their home communities. In New York, where people are often imprisoned far from home and incarceration rates have skyrocketed in the last decade, this policy has produced increasingly harmful results. Public officials in prison districts have an incentive to build their districts on the backs of “ghost voters,” packing in prisoners who count toward the district size but who are not permitted to vote. So while officials who profit from the prison economy have an outsized voice in incarceration policy, the voting strength of the home communities – to which the vast majority of incarcerated people return – is diluted, resulting in under-representation in our state government.

The new legislation requires the Department of Correctional Services to provide the legislature with the necessary information to determine the home addresses for people in prison, and it instructs that incarcerated people should be allocated back to their home communities for redistricting purposes. This corrects a skew that has decimated the voting strength of poor and minority communities for decades, and assures that all communities in New York have equal representation and an equal voice in our government. Both Maryland and Delaware recently passed similar legislation.

The second policy reform is no less urgent. It will correct years of misinformation, promote successful reintegration and help protect public safety, while building civic participation among traditionally disenfranchised communities. Reliable information about voting rights is needed to address widespread, persistent, and well-documented misinformation in New York. Under New York law, people convicted of a felony lose the right to vote while in prison and parole. People on probation do not lose the right to vote. Once someone serves his maximum prison sentence or is discharged from parole, his right to vote is automatically restored. He need do nothing more than fill out a voter registration form like everyone else. Nevertheless, New York election officials have consistently misapplied the law and some have required people to provide unnecessary (and sometimes nonexistent) paperwork before being allowed to register. Not surprisingly, this confusion among election officials has affected the public. In 2005, researchers found that nearly 30% of people with criminal convictions surveyed in New York thought they would never be eligible to vote again.

New York’s new law is the latest in a national trend. Twenty-four other states and New York City already require certain state and local agencies to inform people when their voting rights are restored following a criminal conviction. It is a simple, workable policy that promises to have a major impact in assuring successful reintegration and reduced recidivism. Last year a retired New York parole chief testified before the New York Senate Elections Committee, “having the right to vote and learning how to exercise that right gives one a voice and a stake in the community; it promotes positive behavior and serves as a powerful conduit for making the transition from criminal to becoming a law abiding member of the community.”

The political jousting and escalating rhetoric of this seemingly endless New York budget season have been baffling, and at times excruciating. But this legislation shows that sometimes behind the shenanigans important policy reforms can be achieved. These two proposals in particular have the potential to make at least some aspects of our representative government a model for the rest of the country, and that’s not something we say lightly.

--Erika Wood

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