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Removing Voting Roadblocks

New York is not one of the six states that permanently disenfranchises anyone who has had a felony conviction. Here, once people have completed their full sentence, including parole, they are considered to have paid their full debt to society and regain the right to vote. But until recently, it was almost impossible for them to exercise that right.

According to a survey conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice at the New York University School of Law, county boards of elections were demanding proof of eligibility from people with past felony convictions—usually in the form of documents that are issued only to a fraction of ex-offenders or were very difficult to get.

“Conceptually, to people with previous records, they were saying ‘You’ll never be able to vote,’” said Juan Cartagena of the Community Service Society, which joined the Brennan Center and the Legal Action Center in bringing this problem to the state’s attention. A signed affidavit is always supposed to be enough to register to vote, he explained. “They never ask the 18-year-olds for additional documents to prove they’ve turned 18.”

The New York State Board of Elections seems to agree. “Once they understood the burdens involved, they turned very quickly to ‘Let’s figure out solutions,’” said Kele Williams, associate counsel at the Brennan Center.

The board of elections sent a very strongly worded memo to all the county boards instructing them to stop requesting documentation because “doing so has the effect of disenfranchising people, and we are in the business of enfranchising people.” If there is a real question about a person’s eligibility, the memo continued, dates of release are available at the Department of Corrections Web site and should be checked there.

The memo was sent on Oct. 29, too late for anyone to register for this year’s elections, but it is in effect now for any new registrants.

The next step, said Williams, is educating people about their rights: Many ex-offenders don’t know they can vote again. Meanwhile, CSS and two different organizations are launching a lawsuit to fight the disenfranchisement of people who are still on parole and still incarcerated. “The ability to integrate themselves [into the broader community] has a lot to do with whether they will continue to commit crime,” said Cartagena. “One way to integrate is to have a voice.”

—Miriam Axel-Lute

I Don’t Buy It

Depending on your perspec- tive, shopping on the day after Thanksgiving is either a welcome adventure or a torture worthy of the day’s nickname, “Black Friday.” And, true to form, the good folks over at Adbusters are using this as an opportunity to call this day of gluttonous consumption to public attention by sponsoring their 12th annual Buy Nothing Day.

Buy Nothing Day is a global effort to talk back to mass consumerism and mega-corporations. This year, there will be TV ads, radio spots and countless creative guerrilla demonstrations, or “culture jams,” some of which were helped by grants from Adbusters. Among the attractions: zombies tromping through malls, free organic and fairly traded coffee being served outside of Starbucks, and an impromptu model of a sweatshop bolted to the floor of a Wal-Mart, complete with whip-wielding overseers and a camera team.

Many folks choosing to participate will simply take 24 hours off from shopping in a simple gesture of solidarity and awareness. Others will leaflet and gently nudge people to spend time with their families instead of focusing on gift bombardment. The point of the day remains to emphasize consumer responsibility and the purchasing power of an individual.

—Ashley Hahn

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