Back in January, New York State passed voting reforms that made voting easier and accessible for residents. Though early voting and consolidated primaries seemed like progress, government officials and community leaders from the Hudson Valley think that much more needs to be done. Activist groups from the Hudson Valley held a press conference at the Fresh Start Café in the City of Newburgh on Thursday, June 13 to rally for the restoration of voting rights to parolees.
Two bills that concern granting automatic voter registration and voting rights restorations for people on parole are currently in session in both New York’s Senate and Assembly, but have not gone to the floor yet.
The rally’s location, the Fresh Start Café, is the state designated anti-poverty agency in Orange County and the workforce development program that is spearheaded by the Regional Economic Community Action Program (RECAP). It “allows people who are unemployed, underemployed, recently released from incarceration, and those who need a job [to] come here and learn professional skills, learn culinary and business development,” says Michelle McKeon, RECAP’s chief operating officer.
McKeon is a staunch supporter of the proposed reforms. “Full voting rights need to be restored from people who have paid their debts to society the moment they step out of prison,” McKeon says. “That is non-negotiable and that is a right.”
In April of 2018, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order that restored voting rights to people on parole. But, according to Sharon Wong of the Lower Hudson Valley Chapter of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NCLU), New York’s registration rates are still “among the lowest in the country, and our felony disenfranchisement laws are in terrible vestige of Jim Crow,” she says.
Wong believes that by instituting voter registration and allowing people re-engage with the United States’ political system, people who are released from prison will help change New York’s “dismal political participation and give New Yorkers a voice in our government,” she explains.
New York State law strips felony offenders of their right to vote, and it is not given back to them until after they have completed parole. Out of the 30,000 people on parole in New York, around 75% are either black or Latino. Once out of prison, “the criminal legal system demands that the formerly incarcerated folks become productive and participating members of society, without the right to vote, [and] that demand is a cynical one,” Wong says.
“I’m standing in front of everybody as a person who, last year for the first time, voted in my life,” declares Angelo Pagan, a workforce development instructor with Exodus Transitional Community. “And, the reason why I didn’t vote was because prior to voting, I served 25 years of incarceration. I went in at the age of 18 and I came home at the age of 43,” he continues.
Though it may seem a small issue to many, Pagan cites his eligibility to vote as “one of many more reasons for me to not go back to prison. And I have to look for as many reasons as possible.” He believes that the ability to vote keeps him productive, as “some of us have to work harder than others to get our lives back.”
Also in attendance was Orange County Legislator Kevindaryán Luján, who expressed his utmost support. “We have to make elections easier for people,” he says. “I stand with all of you proudly, to say that I stand in favor of these bills.”
Geri Wilcott, a member of End the Jim Crow Network (ENJAN) wants to “end the New Jim Crow now.” She says that members of ENJAN support the restoration of voting rights to all formerly incarcerated individuals who may be on parole.
City of Newburgh Mayor Torrance Harvey additionally expressed his endorsement of the bills, saying, “When we talk about automatic voting registration and restoring the ability for parolees to vote, this is a no-brainer.”
If states give parolees the right to vote after incarceration, there will be “decreased recidivism and improve public safety, as parolees re-integrate into their community and civic life,” says Wong. As for automatic voter registration, she believes that it is fundamental to our democracy.
“Having a voice should not be something that is considered a privilege,” says Pagan. “As a person that is deeply invested in the community that I live in right now, whether it’s economic well-being [or] spiritual well-being...people need to be aware of the importance of having a “say-so” in the future.”
For more information regarding these bills, visit letnyvote.org/ to learn more.