STATEMENT: Local Boards of Elections are Blocking Thousands of New Yorkers from Voting, in Violation of State Law, According to a New Statewide Study

Release Date: 
March 15, 2006

New York, NY — Many of New York's local boards of election are systematically and illegally preventing thousands of eligible New Yorkers from registering to vote, according to a new study released by the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law and Demos.

Under New York law, the right to vote is restored to citizens with felony convictions once they have served their maximum sentences, or have been discharged from parole. New Yorkers on probation never lose their right to vote. Despite these facts, the new survey shows that more than one-third of New York's 63 local election boards, including four boards in New York City, are unlawfully disfranchising potentially thousands of eligible voters with criminal convictions.

In the survey, 24 of New York's 63 local boards reported, incorrectly, that individuals on probation are not entitled to vote, or stated that they did not know if probationers are eligible. Twenty local boards also request unwarranted documentation — beyond that authorized by New York law — before allowing an individual with a felony conviction to register to vote. Frequently, the documents requested do not exist, making it impossible for individuals to register even if they attempt to comply with the illegal requests.

"The State and City Boards of Elections have been aware of these illegal practices for at least two years," said Catherine Weiss, Deputy Director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. "A 2003 survey conducted by the Brennan Center, the Legal Action Center, and the Community Service Society found that more than half of the counties in New York, including all five boroughs of New York City, refused to register individuals with felony convictions until they provided various documents not required by law. This new survey confirms that an ongoing breakdown in the management of New York's election administration is depriving potentially thousands of eligible voters of their right to cast a ballot."

Key findings from the survey of local boards of elections:

* Twenty-four of New York's 63 local boards either answered incorrectly or did not know if an individual on probation was eligible to register to vote.
* Twenty of the 63 local boards requested that voter registration applicants with felony convictions produce documentation not required by New York law.
* Forty-three counties--68 percent--stated that they were not familiar with a 2003 policy memorandum explaining that people with felony convictions are subject to the same registration procedures as any other eligible voter. Four counties said they knew of the policy, but still required additional documentation.
* These illegal practices are especially troubling in New York City, which is home to nearly one-third of all New Yorkers sentenced to probation in 2004 for a felony conviction. Fifty percent of people sentenced to prison and 61 percent of people on parole reside in New York City's five boroughs. Four New York City officesNew York, Kings and Queens Counties, and the New York City Board of Electionsare disseminating misinformation.

Among the report's key recommendations:

* The State Board should provide information on voting rights to all individuals with criminal records who were registered to vote prior to their convictions. The Brennan Center, Demos and the Legal Action Center have provided the State Board with a letter to distribute to such persons.
* The State Board should provide comprehensive in-person training and materials to the individual local boards. The Brennan Center, Demos and the Legal Action Center have provided the State Board with training materials to distribute.
* The State Board should require all local boards to provide information to the public on eligibility and registration procedures for people with criminal convictions. The Brennan Center, Demos and the Legal Action Center have provided the State Board with materials adaptable to this purpose.
* The State Board should initiate a public communications campaign to educate New Yorkers about voter registration for people with felony convictions.
* The State Board of Elections should promulgate agency regulations enforceable against local boards that prevent eligible voters with criminal convictions from exercising their right to vote. The State Legislature should amend state election law to permit individuals to vote upon release from incarceration.

"This survey presents deeply disturbing evidence that there is a breakdown in our election administration," said New York State Assembly Member Keith Wright. "The State Board of Elections has an obligation to provide accurate information to the voters of New York. As the Chair of the Assembly Elections Committee, it's clear to me that the Board of Elections must take immediate steps to correct their errors, and the legislature must make reform a priority to ensure that all eligible citizens are able to cast a ballot, and have their ballot counted, on Election Day."

"Elections are the backbone of democracy, and New Yorkers should be able to have faith that the people who run our elections are able to fairly and fully apply the law," said Scott Novakowski, Program Associate in the Democracy Program at Demos. "This report proves that voters are not only misinformed about their eligibility, they are subject to unnecessary, burdensome and illegal documentation requirements for voter registration. This survey should be a clarion for our officials and elected leaders who oversee the maintenance of our election systems."

For more information, visit archive.demos.org.

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