Governor Kathy Hochul signed an ambitious legislative package into law last week centered around voting rights. These 10 new laws have safeguards for ballot access, electoral education, early voting, and voter protections for formerly incarcerated New Yorkers.
“By safeguarding the integrity of our electoral process and ensuring equal access to the ballot box, we empower every New Yorker to have their voice heard,” said Hochul in a statement. “New York State remains committed to strengthening our democratic process, championing the right to vote for every citizen and cementing our place as a national leader on voting rights.”
Several of the laws essentially improve the voting process and encourage education.
The Strengthening Early Voting Practices (S. 6195/A.1177) allows absentee ballots to be counted if they have been taped and show no signs of tampering. The “Golden Day” law (S. 5984-A/A. 6132-A) creates an opportunity for voters to register and cast their ballots at their polling places on the same day for a period of time on the first day of early voting. S. 6519-A/A. 1565-A establishes a deadline for changing the location of a polling place for an early voting period. S. 7394-A/A-7632-A establishes a system for early voting by mail, and S. 587/A.268 requires the New York State Board of Elections (BOE) to develop and provide a training program for poll workers. The school bill (S. 1733-A/A.5180-A) requires charter schools and non-public schools to promote student voter registration.
Some laws from the package are about the upcoming presidential election in 2024. Protecting New Yorkers’ Vote law involves court cases and the “Faithless Electors” bill (S. 438/A. 928) prohibits rogue electors from affecting the outcome of a presidential election. Hochul also set the date of the presidential primary election for April 2, 2024.
The legislative package includes the NYS Formerly Incarcerated Voter Protection Act (A4009A/S05965A), which mandates local jails provide “electoral education” for those released from local jails statewide. Here in New York City, the law includes Rikers Island facilities, where more than half the population held is Black. On Wednesday, Sept. 20, Hochul signed the Protection Act at a ceremony at New York Law School in Manhattan.
“This new law is a labor of love to every person who came home with a changed heart, but only needed an opportunity and access to resources to change their lives. Civic engagement and voting rights restoration is a key step in that change,” said Assemblymember Eddie Gibbs, who sponsored and co-wrote the law in the assembly.
Gibbs is the first formerly incarcerated person to serve in public office in New York State. He considers the Protection Act a passion project for himself while grieving the loss of his mother, Valerie Gibbs, and his daughter, Ariel Gibbs. His daughter died seven years ago and his mom more recently this year, he said.
In his routine tours of state prisons, Gibbs said that he has found many imprisoned men are interested in the history of voting rights, while women are more politically inclined toward current issues. “I get a sense that a lot of people want to be involved,” said Gibbs. “But there’s always confusion as to whether you can vote or not.”
Gibbs said that versions of the Protection Act had failed to pass in the last couple of legislative sessions because of particular wording. He set out to partner with State Senate sponsor Jamaal Bailey to get it workshopped and passed. Bailey told the AmNews that the legislation allows more New Yorkers to follow in Gibbs’s footsteps and get civically engaged after navigating the legal criminal justice system. He added that it’s a step toward destigmatizing and demystifying pre-trial detention.
“We all know that you’re innocent until proven guilty,” said Bailey. “But for some reason, when someone is detained, the court [of public opinion], which has no legal standing, often deems people guilty without trial or before trial. You are guilty based upon accusation, incarceration, [and] a number of different things that are not a conviction in a court of law.That’s the mentality of that conversation [and] is something that we’re hoping to ameliorate with this bill.
“But that mentality is something that we have to continue to work on in a number of ways. Not just via this bill, but through civic education…as much as I love my job as legislator, and I think we should pass as many bills as we can, sometimes we can’t legislate everything and [have to] just get to the basics [by doing our] civic duties and make sure that people are aware of their rights.”
To be clear, the bill doesn’t grant new voting rights to formerly incarcerated individuals—those affected are largely already eligible to vote. The legislation simply ensures they’re aware of their status after the release from a local jail, both in word and in writing. And for those currently not able to vote, Bailey said the bill ensures they will be informed of any potential pathways to regain their eligibility.
U.S. citizens in New York State currently cannot register to vote while held in a correctional facility like a prison or jail for a felony conviction, but regain eligibility upon release. Almost every other justice-impacted New Yorker can register to vote, including those awaiting trial and those held on misdemeanors. And soon they will find out, thanks to the bill.
The detainee will also be “offered” a voter registration application and assistance with filling out the form upon release.
“Making sure that people have the ability with the application for voter registration—that is a powerful tool, right?” said Bailey. “[Your] 18th birthday, you get a lottery ticket in one hand and a voter registration form [in] the other—when it’s in your hands, it becomes all the more real.”
Erica Smitka, League of Women Voters of New York deputy director, said anything easing the registration process is beneficial so the prospective voter isn’t concerned about eligibility when election day comes around. The act not only provides voter registration forms to those released from local jails, but offers to send the applications out on their behalf.
Smitka added that the bill is critical for combating misinformation, given that groups most frequently detained during pre-trial also happen to be some of the most disenfranchised.
“Having wrong information is very easily a way to suppress someone’s vote, whether intentional or unintentional,” said Smitka. “It still is voter suppression…[there is reportedly] a lack of access to information about voting while someone is in jail, [which] disproportionately affects low-income citizens and primarily Black and brown New Yorkers.”
Gibbs is planning a March for Justice on October 15 to promote the laws. The march is essentially a 10-day community walk from Harlem to Albany via US 9. He will be stopping at state prisons along the route.
Ariama C. Long and Tandy Lau are Report for America corps members and write about politics and public safety for the Amsterdam News. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep them writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by visiting https://bit.ly/amnews1.