In some ways, New York State has been on the vanguard of protecting its citizens’ civil rights. On the question of voting rights, however, New York must re-examine its practices.
The contemporary discussion of voting rights either locates disenfranchisement in the pre-Civil Rights era or in the modern South. The percentage of people robbed of their constitutional rights was larger before legislation like the Voting Rights Act, and that attempts to disenfranchise people in states like North Carolina are more frequent, targeted and effective.
These facts, however, do not erase or ameliorate New York’s record of unjustly disenfranchising people.
The type of disenfranchisement that New York and multiple other states engage in is the disenfranchisement of felons. New York’s law specifically declares that, if convicted of a felony charge, an individual cannot vote in New York until they can again register following the completion of their maximum sentence, according to a 2016 report from The Sentencing Project.
This voting ban’s effect is widespread and unfortunate. Tens of thousands of inmates in New York currently reside in New York state prisons, while thousands more cannot vote due to their status as parolees. Throughout the United States, as many as 6 million people cannot vote due to a past felony conviction, according to The Sentencing Project.
The impact of revoking voting rights can manifest in elections. Of the past four presidential elections, three had margins of victory less than 6 million. The inability to vote holds even more impact for the local level, where a single vote has decided local ballot measures.
States often have different regulations regarding when and if a convicted felon can regain their voting rights. Preventing people from voting on the rules of wherever they are living—especially if they have no choice as to their residency—is wrong.
Additionally, felon disenfranchisement especially prevents black Americans from voting, thereby exacerbating the racially discriminatory nature of the American political system. Black inmates make up nearly half of New York’s prison population, while only 18 percent of New York residents are black, according to the Albany Times-Union.
Furthermore, nationwide, nearly 7.7 percent of black voters have lost the right to vote due to a felony conviction, as The Sentencing Project reported in 2016. New York should do its due diligence to prevent the preservation of racist systems.
The primary argument against restoring voting rights to felons, as exemplified by Hans von Spakovsky of the conservative Heritage Foundation think-tank, is that felons have forfeited their civil rights and must earn their rights back.
“Automatic reinstatement of voting rights does not allow for this,” von Spakovsky writes. “Instead, it gives individuals who have intentionally broken the law the right to help decide, through the ballot box, what those laws should be and how they should be enforced. No showing of rehabilitation needed.”
The notion that one must prove their ability to demonstrate good judgment in order to have the fundamental right to vote is not founded. The idea that providing an inmate this right would cause them to have such power in deciding laws and that they would abuse this right is flawed.
Prisoners with restored voting rights could influence representatives’ stances on prison service funding. They could also ensure that there are no severe miscarriages of justice. Preventing those in prison keep their representatives accountable makes it easier for those representatives to ignore prisoners’ rights.
It is unfair to disenfranchise people for crimes. New York State must measure voting eligibility in a holistic and fair way.