Voting Laws Lock Felons Out

July 14, 2004 | San Francisco Bay Times |

I have never cast a vote. Not that I haven't wanted to.

I was sent to prison on a felony conviction at 16. When I got out at 19 it was Eisenhower's last year in office, and I was old enough to go to the polls. I should have been able to cast my first vote that year in the Nixon-Kennedy race. Voting for president in 1960, that's a memory I should have today. It's a right I should have had then.

I didn't vote, though. Never had the chance. As a convicted felon, I already had that right taken away by the state of New York. No, it wasn't in my sentence. A life without voting was preordained by law. New York, like many other states, adds a penalty of its own to every felon's prison term -- they remove your place at the table.

In the middle of the 1960s, of all periods in American history, I was locked out. I could work and pay taxes. I could march in protest. But I could not vote the decision-makers in or out.

I couldn't support candidates backing the Civil Rights Act, register my opinion on Vietnam or cast a ballot in the new presidential primary process. I was barred from electing officials opposed to Rockefeller Drug Laws and voting for a city councilmember or mayor who believed in affordable housing, cracking down on police brutality and keeping schools safe and stocked with books.

To those who wielded power, I didn't exist as anything but a felon -- branded a permanent menace to the system and society.

Until 1971, no felon in New York had the right to vote -- that's when the law was changed to allow voting after a complete prison and parole term is served. Considering the lopsided sentences handed out, particularly to people of color and under draconian drug possession laws, hundreds of thousands of men and women were still unable to vote well into their decades-long paroles, if they even knew they could at all. I didn't, and a few additional run-ins with the law meant that I couldn't.

After more than 40 years of exclusion from the system, I had to act. I filed Hayden v. Pataki in 2001, a lawsuit aimed at overturning laws that connect prison sentences to voting rights. I wanted there to be a way to end the disconnect millions of people feel from their political process. How could policymakers talk about rehabilitation and integration into society, yet disable the most basic participatory mechanism?

I have made it my life's work to educate the public about its rights, reminding people with the right to vote to use it, and organizing widely to help restore the vote to the rest of us. That's why I became the director of the New York City Unlock the Block: Release the Vote campaign, which educates people about disenfranchisement and is a core member organization of the national Right to Vote Campaign.

While we have devoted a great deal of time to overturning the disenfranchisement laws, Unlock the Block works with organizations and individuals across New York City and around the state to conduct outreach and public education. One of our most important goals is to inform those with completed sentences about their right to vote -- something that the state has all but neglected. Without this knowledge, formerly incarcerated citizens of New York are cut off from participating in their democracy.

While the project charges ahead full-steam, the lawsuit is on hold. On June 16, 2004, Hayden v. Pataki was dismissed by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York. It was a brief moral setback for me, knowing that the court ruled against what so many of us know is right. Now that I am entering my fifth decade living as an outsider in this democracy, I am used to waiting. But I won't give up.

We continue to make progress with Unlock the Block because we keep talking about it -- in prisons and schools, with voters and journalists, politicians and activists. Our efforts won't end, because 131,000 felons doing time in New York have indefinitely lost their voice, and 250,000 others who have completed their sentence don't know that they have a voice.

Think about the power of over a quarter of a million votes! So while I have faith that the case will finally get its day, I keep reminding myself that a single vote - each one - is like a voice in a choir: you hear the harmony when democracy works for all.

Joseph "Jazz" Hayden is the director of Unlock the Block: Release the Vote in New York.

 

While we have devoted a great deal of time to overturning the disenfranchisement laws, Unlock the Block works with organizations and individuals across New York City and around the state to conduct outreach and public education. One of our most important goals is to inform those with completed sentences about their right to vote -- something that the state has all but neglected. Without this knowledge, formerly incarcerated citizens of New York are cut off from participating in their democracy.