ALBANY — A New York City lawmaker advanced legislation Wednesday to allow the tens of thousands of convicted felons incarcerated in state prisons and county jails to participate in local, state and national elections.
The proposal from Sen. Kevin Parker, a Brooklyn Democrat and the influential chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, would make New York one of just three states where felons could cast votes from behind bars. The other two are Maine and Vermont.
Parker’s proposal was swiftly criticized by several upstate Republican lawmakers. A North Country Democrat, Assemblyman Billy Jones of Chateaugay, a former state corrections officer, also expressed opposition.
A bill memo accompanying the legislation described New York’s practice of disenfranchising convicted felons as “archaic” and maintained the existing statute is a “maneuver to disempower black voters.” The majority of state prison inmates are people of African-American and Hispanic backgrounds. Parker asked in the bill memo: “If an incarcerated individual can be counted as a whole person in the census, then why can’t their vote be counted in an election?”
Among those who voiced their opposition to Parker’s measure were Assemblyman Angelo Morinello, R-Niagara Falls, Assemblyman Chris Tague, R-Schoharie, and Sen. Rob Ortt, R-North Tonawanda, who is currently running for the congressional seat vacated by former Rep. Chris Collins, a Republican who is now a convicted felon himself after admitting his role in an insider trading scheme.
“Once again, New York progressives are showing their true colors and prioritizing lawbreakers and criminals over our law-abiding citizens,” Morinello, a former Niagara Falls city judge, said in a statement.
However, a nonprofit group that assists former inmates in employment, housing and rehabilitative efforts, the Fortune Society, came out in favor of Parker’s legislation.
JoAnne Page, director of the Fortune Society, said the United States is out of step with some countries that do far more to prepare inmates for their eventual return to their communities. She said enfranchising inmates with the right to vote would help to rehabilitate them and thus provide public safety benefits to the state.
Page said state laws to disenfranchise inmates of their voting rights came about after slavery ended and segregationist policies prevailed in many states.
“I think what Senator Parker is doing is getting ahead of what is becoming a very real wave,” Page said.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, there has been a national trend to expand the pool of registered voters by amending laws that disenfranchised those convicted of crimes. Last year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat from New York City, sidestepped the Legislature by authorizing parolees to have their voting rights restored.
But Cuomo later said he remains opposed to extending voting rights to incarcerated felons.
Parker’s proposal would apply not only to those inmates held in the state’s complex of maximum-, medium- and minimum-security prisons but also to those serving sentences in county jails. It would also require government officials at the state and county levels to assist inmates in becoming registered voters as well as helping them acquire absentee ballots.
Contacted in Plattsburgh, Clinton County Sheriff David Favro said he sees no merit to the bill and contended any elected officials who would support it are seeking to boost their vote totals by trolling for support from criminals.
Supporters of the measure, he said, “make decisions from an office not understanding the complexities and the costs that counties would face from this,” Favro said.
Under Parker’s proposal, inmates, after registering as voters, would be authorized to cast absentee ballots in the counties where they had resided before being incarcerated.
John Conklin, a spokesman for the state Board of Elections, said the panel has not had any formal discussion on the proposal to open voting to incarcerated felons.
Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach him at email@example.com