Friday, March 14, 2008

The Voting Rights Notification and Registration Act

The U.S. Senate’s passage by unanimous consent on Wednesday of the Second Chance Act of 2007, which funds states and non-profits to provide job training and other support services to the population leaving prison, demonstrated that progressive reentry policies can unite both sides of the aisle. It also reminded us of recent progress here in New York to ease the reintegration of former offenders back into the community.

Like the Second Chance Act, which had active support from prominent senators from both parties, a New York bill dealing with notifying former offenders about their right to vote seems to have similarly risen above the political fray. The Voting Rights Notification and Registration Act enjoys a Democratic sponsor in the Assembly, Rep. Keith Wright, and a Republican sponsor in the Senate, Sen. Dale Volker.

The bill aims to correct the de facto disenfranchisement of thousands of New Yorkers who have had criminal convictions in their past and are unaware of their eligibility to vote. In New York, voting rights are restored upon completion of maximum prison or parole sentence, while the right to vote is never lost by those on probation, in jail awaiting a conviction, or convicted of a misdemeanor. But people who are serving parole sentences are prohibited from voting in this state, meaning that some people who are under supervision in the community are ineligible, while others are eligible to vote. This confusion about who can and cannot vote means that thousands of eligible New York voters sit out Election Day because they falsely believe they are banned from the rolls. The situation isn’t helped by the fact that county offices of the Board of Elections—the very place where the record should be set straight—have been known to routinely provide misinformation about voting rights eligibility. (A survey by the Brennan Center for Justice and Demos in 2006 revealed that nearly one third of the state’s county election boards improperly asked for documentation from former offenders before allowing them to register to vote, and routinely misinformed probationers that they were ineligible to vote).

The Voting Rights Notification and Registration Act would establish protocols to notify convicted felons of the status of their voting rights before, during, and after their sentences. Correctional and parole agencies would be required to provide voter registration forms to individuals upon completion of their maximum prison or parole sentence. The Division of Probation and Correctional Alternatives would become a voter registration agency, and correctional facilities would be required to aid in the voting procedures of qualified inmates. Furthermore, the bill attempts to clear the haze of confusion surround voting rights eligibility by tasking the Board of Elections with educating attorneys, judges, election officials, probation and parole officers, and the public about voting requirements and the new notice procedures.

As Glenn Martin of the Fortune Society pointed out in a recent El Diario op-ed, although efforts at changing the eligibility rules themselves have often failed in the Legislature, the new governor does have the power to change the law disenfranchising parolees through executive order. But in the meantime, we’ll take bipartisan support of the Voting Rights Notification and Registration Act as a step in the right direction.

--Jude Joffe-Block, Research Associate

No comments: