Coalition to Cuomo: Restore voting rights for incarcerated people now

Stephon Johnson | 1/7/2021, midnight
A coalition wants Albany to focus on adding the formerly incarcerated to the voter rolls. Last week 40 groups sent ...
Prison/jail Craig Lloyd on Pexels

A coalition wants Albany to focus on adding the formerly incarcerated to the voter rolls. Last week 40 groups sent a letter to New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo, State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie urging them to pass Senate Bill S1931 during the 2021 sessions that would automatically restore voting rights to all New Yorkers who have been released from prison.

Executive Order No. 181 would eliminate the need for a conditional pardon and amend state election law so voting rights are automatically restored to incarcerated individuals once they’re released from prison. The legislative proposal would also bring New York’s policy in line with 19 other states, both red and blue, and Washington, D.C. that already allow everyone not currently incarcerated to vote.

“The current process results in a weeks-long delay between an individual’s release from prison and when they get their voting rights back, leaving room for confusion among election officials about who is eligible to vote,” read the letter. “It is also discretionary, can be easily rescinded by future governors, and is an inefficient use of government resources.”

According to Albany’s official numbers, from May 2018 to present, there have been 63,883 voting pardons granted in accordance to EO 181 with 9,785 voting pardons granted pursuant to EO 181 statewide since March 1, 2020.

Soffiyah Elijah of the Alliance of Families for Justice said that this is a long-term project and she wants to see the finish line.

“We’ve been focusing on civic engagement with restoring voting rights for prisoners since our inception in September 2016,” said Elijah. “And in 2018, we had a much more focused effort, which included meeting with members of the Senate and Assembly to have in-person conversations with them on the staggering importance of restoring rights. We know the coalition is focused.”

Elijah took that focus to Lenox Ave. between 112th and 113th Streets setting up shop to talk to Black and Latino neighbors about voter registration. According to Elijah, most of the volunteers in the effort were the formerly incarcerated or family members of incarcerated people.

For their money, in an email, a member of the Cuomo administration wanted to remind the AmNews that the governor has been a champion of voter registration and every New Yorker having access to the ballot.

But Elijah kept emphasizing that she wants the legislation to meet its finish line.

“I think it’s a multi-tiered effort,” said Elijah. “Surely feeling that the justice system has unfairly treated their loved ones, over-sentencing them more than a white person for the same crime or a judge showing a callous ear to the mitigating circumstances, loved ones struggle with the belief that society has failed them so they think voting doesn’t make a difference.”

Patrick Berry, of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU Law, also spoke about the importance of voting.

“I think voting is critically important and the unfortunate reality is that many people who are directly impacted by many of the social ills aren’t able to vote to bring about change,” Berry said. “One thing in recent memory that comes to mind over the summer is countless numbers of people who took to the streets to demand change at anti-police brutality and anti-racism protests.”

Elijah added to that reminding everyone that politics is local.

“It’s not just about the White House,” Elijah said. “It’s about who’s sitting up there with the black robe. It’s about who’s appointing the police commissioner.”

Elijah and Berry both noted that voting rights are under attack and efforts by conservatives to disenfranchise people of color are never-ending. To them, the legislation that sits in Albany is a remedy for that statewide. The coalition’s letter wrote that it was appreciative of Cuomo’s efforts on election reform, but they need him to push further on the coalition’s goals.

“We’re walking the walk and talking the talk,” said Elijah.

“The time has come for the legislation to pass,” said Berry.