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Eligible, but Disenfranchised

New York’s local boards of election are still struggling with rules on voting rights for probationers, ex-felons

In New York state, people who are on probation or incarcerated for a misdemeanor don’t lose their right to vote. And people who have completed their full sentence, including parole, for a felony conviction regain that right.

The law is clear on this front. The State Board of Elections clarified it further with a 2003 memo reminding local boards that people who have completed their sentences do not have to prove their eligibility beyond the same sworn affidavit all voters have to provide [“Removing Voting Roadblocks,” FYI, Nov. 26, 2003].

But when the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU’s School of Law, Demos and the Legal Action Center conducted a study last year of local boards of elections, they found that despite the 2003 memo, more than a third of New York’s counties are still disenfranchising people involved in the criminal justice system who are eligible to vote. Study takers called boards of elections and spoke with whoever answered the phone, as people looking to register to vote would do.

According to the study, Albany County looks to be one of the counties lagging furthest behind. Respondents from the county said that they believed probationers were not eligible to vote, that they were not aware of the 2003 state memo, and that they not only required documentation from people with felony convictions, but required forms of documentation that the groups conducting the study say do not exist.

However, the Albany County Republican elections commissioner, John Graziano, said none of those responses was representative of the county’s policy. “If [a person] has gone in and been incarcerated and they are released they just have to reregister. That’s my understanding of how we handle it, and that’s how we should be handling it,” he said. Graziano said no documentation was required of people to show that they had completed their full sentence or parole, and that people on probation did not have their voting eligibility affected or questioned in any way.

It’s great that the commissioners understand the law, responded Norden, but “unless he’s answering the phones himself, that doesn’t help people much.”

Norden doesn’t think the incorrect responses given by local boards represent willful disregard for the law. “In most cases it’s just confusion about what the law is,” he said. The state board did little follow-up to its 2003 memo, he noted, and the local boards, which can be overwhelmed with various regulations, need to know the state board is serious about this issue.

To that end, the report makes several recommendations for the state board. They include: codifying the 2003 memo into a regulation; informing all individuals with criminal records who were registered to vote prior to their convictions of their rights and providing them with a registration form; providing in-person training and materials to each individual local board; initiating a public communications campaign and establishing a telephone complaint helpline.

Norden said the state board, which was sent a copy of the report on Feb. 23, has not committed to implementing any of the recommendations. Lee Daghlian of the state board said he had not seen the report, but that enforcement would improve with the implementation of a statewide voter registration database required by the Help America Vote Act, which should be complete within a year.

At the moment, a “code 4” ineligibility note is put on the record of anyone who receives a felony conviction, but there is no system in place to remove it when their sentence is completed. It is seeing this code that generally spurs local boards to demand documentation, noted Martin, even though a signed affidavit is all they are legally allowed to ask for. Daghlian said with the new database the code 4 notes will be systematically removed at the proper time.

As for the study’s other recommendations, Daghlian said, “All of that stuff will be reivewed by this board. Any recommendations that we feel are necessary will be done. I don’t know if we’ll do any more for any given group than we would for anyone who’s eligible to vote.”

In addition to recommendations for the state board, the groups that conducted the report are calling for support of the Voting Rights Notification and Registration Act, sponsored in the Assembly by Keith Wright (D-Manhattan). Although there are 10 different bills in the Legislature addressing pieces of the issue, Glenn Martin of the Legal Action Center says Wright’s bill is the most comprehensive in terms of notification and registration procedures, without the politically more ambitious move of calling for reenfranchisement for parolees.

Martin says because it doesn’t expand voting rights and just tries to ensure existing ones, he’s hopeful Wright’s bill will garner support from the Senate, though he still expects passing it will be a multiyear process.

Wright’s bill would establish county probation agencies and local correctional facilities as voter-registration agencies, allowing them to inform clients of their right to vote, register them, and provide absentee ballots as warranted. It would also provide that people who have completed their terms be informed of their eligibility and offered registration and that people accepting a guilty plea or being convicted have the effect on their voting rights explained at that time. The bill also would require the systematic removal of the code 4 notations at the end of a person’s sentence.

Encouraging probationers and ex-offenders to vote is important, said Martin, because it “helps to facilitate successful reentry. It gives people a sense of belonging to the community.”

—Miriam Axel-Lute

maxel-lute@metroland.net


What a Week

Impeachment: Not Just for Radicals Anymore

William Goodman, legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights, is not usually the sort to get invited on conservative TV talk shows. But he took the plunge for a March 8 debate on impeaching George Bush on the MSNBC show of Joe Scarborough, a former Republican congressman. Goodman, writing for Alternet, noted that Scarborough even admitted that the case for impeachment was intellectually honest. Though plenty of activists remain frustrated about the slow pace of Democratic support for impeachment, others say the idea is really moving mainstream quite rapidly.

More Proof We Don’t Know Everything

Just south of Easter Island, 7,540 feet deep in the ocean, French divers have discovered an animal so different from anything else that it merited a new family, Kiwaidae. The approximately 6-inch-long blind crustacean, called “Kiwa hirsuta,” resembles a lobster, only its pincers are covered with “sinuous, hair-like strands.” Kiwada is the crustacean goddess in Polynesian mythology. Hirsute means, well, hairy.

In a Galaxy Far, Far Away . . .

According to The Boston Globe, the Pentagon is asking Congress for hundreds of millions of dollars to test weapons in space. The weapons listed on the budget proposal include ground-fired lasers that could take out enemy satellites, spacecrafts that would travel 20 times the speed of sound while firing weapons, and satellites that could launch missiles. The Pentagon says the investment is worthwhile because it has civilian applications.

Nothing in Common?

Jay Bennish, a social studies teacher from Aurora, Colo., has been suspended without pay for comparing the rhetoric of George Bush to that of Adolf Hitler. The school district is currently reviewing whether Bennish’s comments violated a policy requiring balanced viewpoints in the classroom. On a tape made by a student of one of Bennish’s lectures, he says Bush’s speech “sounds a lot like the things that Adolf Hitler used to say: ‘We’re the only ones who are right, everyone else is backwards and our job is to conquer the world and make sure that they all live just like we want them to.’ ”



photo:Chris Shields

Three Years and Counting

Signs reading “Support our troops, bring them home now!” went up all over the area yesterday morning (plus some a few days early) to commemorate the third anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq. Organized by Women Against War and supported by a bevy of local peace organizations, the Sign-On for Peace Campaign distributed 1,100 signs in the two weeks leading up to the anniversary. Organizers can be reached at signonforpeace@hotmail.com.

 

 

 

Ms. Representation

Local activists fit Hillary into their schedule because she won’t fit them into hers

On Friday, Sen. Hillary Clinton arrived at the University at Albany campus to deliver a speech at a conference on tech jobs. When the conference was finished, Clinton had a pack of press awaiting her every word, and she took advantage of it by tearing into the policies of President George W. Bush. On her way into the conference, however, Clinton was faced with a group not waiting to listen, but waiting to speak.

Rather than listening to the group of antiwar activists who were organized by Peace Action, Clinton did what she has done over and over again: ignored them. According to local activist Jean Finley, antiwar activists around the state have grown accustomed to being ignored by their junior senator [“Calling Clinton,” Newsfront, June 9, 2005]. Said Finley, “She will not meet with any social justice or peace group anywhere in New York.”

It’s not something they are taking lying down. Maureen Aumand, from Women Against War, said being brushed off again and again by Clinton is “feeding this absolute commitment to be wherever she is. To say, ‘You just have refused to be responsive to the citizenry.’ ”

To carry out this commitment, Finley has started the Noble Cause Action listserv, named after Cindy Sheehan’s unanswered question to President Bush: “For what noble cause did my son die?” Finley’s listserv keeps local activists up to date on Clinton’s latest public appearances so that they can get the senator’s attention. People interested in joining the list can e-mail noblecauseaction- subscribe@yahoogroups.com.

According to Finley, the listserv has given birth to a “rapid response team” of people willing to protest Clinton whenever she is in their area.

Clinton voted in favor of the authorization to go to war in Iraq, and though she has since criticized Bush’s handling of the war, she has not expressed any change of opinion on whether the war was justified in the first place.

Keeping up with Clinton’s appearances is not as easy as it sounds. “We have one contact who needs to remain nameless who is very good,” explained Finley. “There is also a Web site called www.justhillary.com, but our contact is our main source.”

Finley and other local activists make it clear that talking to Clinton is not their main cause, just a means to an end. Said Finley, “We are first and foremost activists against the war.”

—David King

dking@metroland.net


Overheard

Overheard:

“Delaware Avenue’s haunted.”

“Delaware Avenue?”

“Yeah. Something bad happened there.”

—CDTA Route 18 bus, in the midst of a discussion of haunted houses.

 

Overheard:“Question his manhood.”

—Ralph Nader, at a press conference Tuesday supporting Alice Green, in response to a question about how Green could convince Mayor Jerry Jennings to participate in a debate.



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