MANHATTAN (CN) – Six months after Governor Andrew Cuomo restored the voting rights of 35,000 New Yorkers on parole, the New York City Council met Wednesday to focus on drumming up awareness.
“This is a wonderful step forward,” Councilman Fernando Cabrera, who chairs the Committee on Governmental Operations, said Wednesday. “For it to work, we are going to need to do a tremendous amount of public education.”
Keith Powers, chair of the Criminal Justice Committee, emphasized meanwhile that the council’s duties toward those with prior convictions includes ensuring “not only [that they] know about their voting rights, but have meaningful access to the polls.”
To these ends, lawmakers have proposed three bills, and the council’s Governmental Operations and Criminal Justice Committees heard testimony regarding the legislation today for over two hours.
“Simply put, there is a lot of confusion about voting eligibility for people with criminal convictions,” said Eric Friedman, assistant executive director for public affairs at the New York City Campaign Finance Board, in written testimony to the council.
The first bill on the table, introduced by Cabrera, calls for a coordinated system of guidance for city agencies to make “specialized efforts to increase registration and voting.”
In another bill, Councilman Rory Lancman called on the city’s Department of Correction to distribute a written notice on voting rights, as well as a voter-registration form, to formerly incarcerated people upon their release.
In the third piece of legislation, Councilman Rafael Salamanca Jr. calls for the Department of Probation to provide people with a written notice of their voting rights at probation intake.
“It is their right to vote and they need to know that,” Salamanca said, according to a statement read by Cabrera on behalf of the absent lawmaker.
Among those who testified at Wednesday’s hearing were New York City Department of Probation Commissioner Ana M. Bermudez; Jorge Fanjul, a senior adviser for Mayor Bill de Blasio’s DemocracyNYC initiative; and New York City Department of Correction Deputy Commissioner Michael Tausek.
“The people we work with must be able to imagine their lives and futures differently than they do now,” said Bermudez, citing a report from the Brennan Center for Justice, which found that civic engagement lessens the likelihood that people will end up behind bars.
“Bringing people into the political process makes them stakeholders, which helps steer [them] away from future crimes,” Bermudez said, quoting the study.
Tausek testified meanwhile that the Department of Correction provides voting information in English and Spanish in “high-traffic areas” such as law libraries and intake centers. Though the proposed bill would require information distribution at “an additional point,” discharge, Tausek said his department could do it.
Wednesday’s hearing followed separate efforts this summer by Mayor de Blasio’s office and DemocracyNYC to increase voting access in city jails, the most famous of which is Rikers Island. The vast majority of the Rikers population has not been convicted of a crime, but simply cannot afford bail.
The Legal Aid Society partnered in the Rikers effort this summer. Legal Aid deputy communications director Redmond Haskins said in an interview Wednesday that it’s “a big deal” for the City Council to get involved, thoguh much of the authority on voting issues lies with the state.
“This is a big step,” he said. “[The city] making an effort to inform folks who were incarcerated of their voting rights — I don’t know how robust that was in the past.”
A felony conviction is disenfranchising in all but two U.S. states. Only Maine and Vermont allow people to cast ballots from prison.
Cuomo’s office note that voting restrictions on former convicts disproportionately affects New Yorkers of color: 71 percent of parolees whose voting rights in New York are now restored are black or Hispanic.