New York State

State Legislature moves to restore voting rights to parolees

The state Senate has passed the decade-old bill for the first time since its introduction

The state Legislature has taken the first step to codifying parolee's right to vote.

The state Legislature has taken the first step to codifying parolee's right to vote. Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office

Nearly three years after Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order that would grant people on parole the right to vote, the state Legislature has taken the first step to codifying those rights into law after the state Senate passed a bill this week to do just that. 

Under current state law, people on parole are not allowed to vote until after their period of supervised release comes to an end. For years after their release from prison, formerly incarcerated people were kept from the ballot box. And attempting to register to vote could send them back to prison. Legislation to restore voting rights date back to 2009, but Republicans who controlled the state Senate prevented it from ever coming up for a vote. That was still the case in 2018, when Cuomo issued his executive order in lieu of the stalled legislation. It permits him to issue conditional pardons to those on parole allowing them to vote upon their release from prison.

But criminal justice and voting rights activists never stopped advocating for the legislation to ensure that those voting rights are both enshrined in law and automatically restored. They had hoped that Democratic majorities in both chambers in 2019 and 2020 would have resulted in the bill’s passage, but for the past two years, it didn’t even make it out of committee in either the state Senate or the Assembly.

But on Wednesday, the state Senate passed the legislation for the first time. “It's a small but really significant development,” Perry Grossman, senior staff attorney in the Voting Rights Project at the NYCLU, told City & State. “It clears up a lot of confusion in the law, and it shows that these voters matter.” Under the current executive order, people on supervised release have to wait to receive their pardon from the governor, and the state law still technically says it’s illegal to vote. The conditional status of their voting rights and the lack of statutory support has left some on parole wary because even unintentional mistakes can land them back in prison. “It wasn't easy getting the legislature to move on this,” Grossman, who has been closely following this legislation for years, said.

The law has roots that date back about 150 years, an outdated relic of the Jim Crow era meant to keep recently enfranchised Black people from actually exercising that right. “With passage of my bill (this week), we are one step closer to officially correcting an error that has silenced the voices of so many New Yorkers for so long,” state Sen. Leroy Comrie, the bill’s sponsor, said in a statement. The legislation would provide clarity that anyone who is a citizen and living in the community is allowed to vote. If one has served their time in prison, as soon as they are back in the community, that person would be permitted to vote again. 

Now, the bill awaits passage in the Assembly, but the timeline in that chamber remains unclear. “It’s a bit alarming that a simple bill seeking to chop away at Jim Crow-era voter bans has not yet passed in the New York State Assembly,” Nick Encalada-Malinowski, civil rights campaign director at VOCAL-NY, said in a statement. The legislation, sponsored for the past decade by Assembly Member Danny O’Donnell, is still in committee. It has come close to getting approved in the chamber in past years, but it’s never actually come up for a vote. O’Donnell spokesperson Gabriel Lewenstein said they have “productive conversations” and that they’re “optimistic” it will soon get passed in the chamber. 

The voting rights bill is just one of a long list of criminal justice reforms that advocates are still pushing for this year. They include parole reform like elder parole, which would allow inmates over 55 years old who have served at least 15 years in prison to become eligible for parole, and the Less is More Act, which would eliminate jail time for parole violations. “Im so happy the Senate passed this (voting rights) bill, but we still have a long way to go,” Jovada Senhouse, VOCAL-NY board member, said in a statement. “We aren’t going anywhere until we end solitary confinement, and wrongful convictions, pass parole reform and restore the right to vote to our incarcerated brothers and sisters.”