New York, NY. — Today a New York City-wide coalition of celebrities, community-based organizations, civil rights groups and criminal justice activists held a press conference to publicly launch its campaign, Release the Vote: Unlock the Block. Forty-two organizations have endorsed the initiative (listing attached).
Unlock the Block is mounting a major public information campaign to educate, mobilize and register thousands of people formerly incarcerated for a felony conviction, their families and their communities. See www.unlocktheblock.org.
Joseph "Jazz" Hayden, Director of Unlock the Block said, "We see felon re-enfranchisement as the next frontier in the long struggle for human rights. Roughly 43,000 New York citizens on parole pay taxes yet can not vote because of a felony conviction. The phrase 'No Taxation without Representation' is as relevant today as it was over two hundred years ago," Hayden said.
According to Charles Dutton, an Emmy Award-winning, Tony- and Golden Globe-nominated actor, director and former prisoner, "All men and women who are living productive lives should be afforded the opportunity to participate fully in this society, including the most basic of all rights — the right to vote — particularly if they are contributing to this country as tax-paying citizens!"
New York's felony disfranchisement law denies the vote to over 131,000 state residents who have been convicted of felony offenses. The vast majority are from a handful of poor communities-of-color in New York City.
Thousands of additional taxpaying New Yorkers are effectively disfranchised by the lack of accurate information from elections and criminal justice agencies. This has created widespread misperceptions about the voting rights of former prisoners, probationers and misdemeanants. According to New York State law, voting rights are automatically restored upon completion of parole. Individuals on probation and misdemeanants retain their voting rights.
"We are centering our efforts in the hardest hit and traditionally marginalized communities. The loss of the vote in these neighborhoods has devastating economic and political consequences and affects the quality of life for all members of the community," said David R. Jones, President of the Community Service Society.
Unlock the Block will also focus on eliminating structural barriers to voting by working to bring government agencies into active compliance with existing law.
"The New York City and State Departments of Corrections and state and county elections officials must inform prisoners and formerly incarcerated felons of their rights, facilitate voter registration, and guarantee that eligible voters are not turned away at the polls and that their names are restored to voting rolls in a timely manner," said Bill Perkins, Deputy Majority Leader of the NYC Council and Chair of the Committee on Government Operations. Perkins has been a leader in city efforts to expand and guarantee the voting rights of local residents.
"I felt like New York had stripped me of my citizenship when I lost the right to vote," said Jan Warren, Associate Director of the College & Community Fellowship at CUNY Graduate Center and formerly incarcerated individual. "Since the state asks me to pay taxes on April 15, then it ought to let me vote on November 2."
While state disenfranchisement laws vary widely, ranging from lifelong disfranchisement in states like Florida to restoration of the vote upon completion of parole in New York, the cumulative national impact is devastating. "Our democracy is diminished in stature and legitimacy when political participation is denied to so many of our citizens," said Bill Webber, President Emeritus of the New York Theological Seminary.
In nearly all states, a disproportionate number of non-white citizens are excluded from the democratic process. "If you look at the history of felon disfranchisement laws in the U.S., you'll see that it's not an accident that they disproportionately target and disempower communities of color. Like poll taxes and literacy tests, many felony disfranchisement laws were intentionally crafted to exclude African Americans from the political process," said Janai Nelson, Assistant Counsel at NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and lead counsel on Hayden v. Pataki, a federal lawsuit challenging New York State's felon disfranchisement laws.
According to Joanne Page, Executive Director of the Fortune Society, "Such massive numbers of disenfranchised citizens of color is the result of the lethal intersection of state laws and a criminal justice system that disproportionately targets people of color through racial profiling, draconian drug laws that unequally target communities of color, unequal sentencing provisions, targeted law enforcement and incompetent counsel."