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New York’s Governor Restored Voting Rights to Those on Parole. Why Did He Wait So Long?

Gabe Schneider

A 2016 estimate by The Sentencing Project places the number of people in the United States disenfranchised due to a prior felony conviction at 6.1 million—or 2.5 percent of all people of voting age—a number that also includes 7.44 percent of Black people in the United States.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) signed an executive order last Wednesday restoring voting rights to around 35,000 people with felony convictions on parole. And while many criminal justice reform advocates posit this action as a step forward for critically disenfranchised voters, Cuomo’s announcement comes in the middle of a formidable primary challenge from Cynthia Nixon, who charged Cuomo as being politically expedient.

“New York State’s disenfranchisement policy is rooted in historical racism, a shameful extension of 19th century efforts to intentionally block black men from casting ballots,” explained Myrna Pérez, the deputy director of the Brennan Center Democracy Program, in a statement on Cuomo’s action.

The Brennan Center links the current voter disenfranchisement of Black voters in New York to the passage of voting disenfranchisement laws following the passage of the 15th Amendment, when states began to pass felon disenfranchisement laws. They argue that not only should parolees have their voting rights restored, but that current New York election law results in the illegal de facto disenfranchisement of those who should already have the right to vote.

“[D]epriving Americans on parole of the right to vote continues to have a drastic impact on people of color,” Pérez noted, citing estimates from the organization that show around 75 percent of New York parolees are Black or Latinx.

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New York is the 19th state to restore voting rights to those previously incarcerated. While advocates consider the action a step forward for for voting rights restoration, those convicted of a felony still serving prison time cannot vote in the state. Only in Maine and Vermont do those convicted of a felony never lose their right to vote.

A 2016 estimate by The Sentencing Project places the number of people in the United States disenfranchised due to a prior felony conviction at 6.1 million—or 2.5 percent of all people of voting age—a number that also includes 7.44 percent of Black people in the United States.

Cuomo’s executive action completely sidesteps the Republican-controlled state legislature by considering partial pardons for all 35,000 people currently on parole, as well as people newly convicted of felonies who enter the parole system.

“Pardon power varies from state to state, but all executives have pardon authority to provide relief to justice-involved persons,” said Nicole D. Porter, director of advocacy at The Sentencing Project. “He’s using his constitutional authority to reinstate voting rights to people on parole.” 

Other governors have also used their pardon power to restore voting rights to those affected by policies disenfranchising people who have served time for felony convictions. By early January, Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) was able to individually pardon 172,298 residents after the state’s supreme court held that he could not make these restorations as one bloc.

Cuomo’s action won’t change state law, as the New York Times noted. State Republicans in New York still hold power in the state senate, and Cuomo has cited problems in the past creating bipartisan legislation to surmount the Republican pushback on criminal justice reform—making passing a legislative change unlikely. And because of the nature of the action, if a future governor decided to reverse this policy, it would immediately cease to exist.

Cuomo’s past and present primary race opponents have taken issue with the fact that he didn’t issue an executive action to restore voting rights when he entered office or at any point during his last eight years in office.

“We don’t buy the Governor’s new song-and-dance routine,” Nixon said of the move on Twitter. “Voter suppression in New York should have ended eight years ago, from the rights of parolees to access to early voting and automatic registration.” The Nixon campaign did not return a request for comment from Rewire.News by the time of publication about what she would do to address the issue if elected.

Fordham University Law School Professor Zephyr Teachout, who ran against Cuomo in the 2014 Democratic Primary, echoed the chorus of complaints and asked on social media why Cuomo didn’t take action in 2012, when as governor he had the same ability to take this executive action.

Cuomo’s move was also criticized by GOP legislators. “The way this should be done is we have hearings, we have committees, and a legitimate public policy discussion that the governor doesn’t want to engage in,” Republican Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (East Northport) told reporters in Albany. “I think he’s trying to expand the universe of people who are eligible to vote and I don’t agree.”

His colleague, Republican Minority Leader Brian Kolb (Canandaigua), took a more pointed stance. “Murderers, rapists and abusers, who made a choice to break the law, don’t deserve to vote until their entire sentences are served—including parole.”

Porter countered that Kolb’s understanding of the law is not only politicized, but contrary to foundational American values.

“People on parole are expected to participate in the social contract in a variety of ways. They’re expected to pay taxes, be good neighbors, and not violate their parole,” Porter said. “So it’s completely counter to the American project that residents in New York state are governed without representation.”

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to correctly identify a quote by Nicole D. Porter.

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