Parolees Get Their Voting Rights Back in New York

by | April 19, 2018

By Kenneth Lovett and Jillian Jorgensen

Gov. Cuomo on Wednesday signed an executive order granting parolees the right to vote in New York.

Cuomo announced the signing at the annual convention of Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network. He decried the state's current law blocking those who have been released from prison but are still on parole from voting, saying it didn't square with the goals of parole and re-entry.

"At the same time, we're saying we want you a part of society, we want you to get back into the community," he said.

Cuomo said he had proposed legislation to grant voting rights to parolees, but it was shot down by the State Senate -- leading him to argue the state needs a new Legislature. But Cuomo said he wouldn't wait that long.

"I'm unwilling to take no for an answer," he said. "I'm going to make it law by executive order and I announce that here today."

Cuomo signed the executive order later Wednesday afternoon. There are about 35,000 New Yorkers on parole who could not vote, the governor's office said. The executive order will restore the right to vote upon release from incarceration, his office said, citing a disproportionate impact of disenfranchisement on communities of color and links between civic engagement and reduced recidivism.

Fourteen other states and the District of Columbia restore voting rights upon release.

Frequent Cuomo foe Mayor de Blasio tweeted it was "a great move."

Cynthia Nixon, the actress and activist challenging Cuomo from his left in the Democratic primary, wasted little time in taking credit for Cuomo's action.

"For eight years, Cuomo governed like a Republican -- handing control of our state to his ultra-rich donors and the party of Trump," she said in a statement. "Now he's scared of communities all across New York who want to replace him with a real Democrat. We don't buy the Governor's new song-and-dance routine. Voter suppression in New York should have ended eight years ago, from the rights of parolees to access to early voting and automatic registration."

Cuomo's office pointed to other criminal justice reforms he's enacted, including raising the age of criminal responsibility and naming the attorney general as a special prosecutor for police-related deaths, arguing he's long cared about the issue.

Republicans, meanwhile, ripped the order. A "dumbfounded" Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan (R-Suffolk County) blasted it as "illegal and horrific public policy."

"It circumvents the law," Flanagan told reporters at the state Capitol. "It basically says there's no need for a Legislature whatsoever. It's unilateral dictates by an executive."

He maintained the governor never raised the issue during recent high-level budget negotiations.

Flanagan said that those on parole, including murderers and rapists, are still serving out their sentences and should not be entitled to their voting rights. He said he would not be surprised if a lawsuit is filed seeking to block the order and accused Cuomo of trying to "expand the universe of people who are eligible to vote."

He singled out Herman Bell, a cop killer who was recently granted parole -- as did Dutchess County Executive Marcus Molinaro, the front-runner for the GOP gubernatorial nomination, who accused Cuomo of being a dictator.

"Just months before an election, with the stroke of his pen, Andrew Cuomo, plans to restore the voting rights for cop killer Herman Bell and Palm Sunday killer Chris Thomas and calls it 'justice'," he said. "But if the dictator of a third world nation threw open it's prison doors and granted voting rights to the criminals right before a reelection, we all would be appalled."

He argued even those who agree with the policy "should be alarmed by a Governor who systematically fails to abide by the limits of his office."

Patrolmen's Benevolent Association President Pat Lynch said Cuomo should worry about "the failure of a parole system that could set free a remorseless, three-time cop-killer like Herman Bell" rather than the rights of parolees. And GOP Chairman Ed Cox, too, mentioned Bell, calling the order "an outrageous power grab" meant to "appeal to radical primary voters and satisfy his presidential ambitions."

The New York Civil Liberties Union praised the executive order, but also said Albany should push forward with legislation on same-day voter registration and early voting.

The order even became a flashpoint in a Republican congressional primary on Staten Island -- with Congressman Dan Donovan using it to remind voters that his opponent, Michael Grimm, is not just an ex-congressman but an ex-con.

Donovan campaign spokeswoman Jessica Proud said Cuomo was seeking to "appeal to national Democrats so he can run against President Trump."

"Convicted felons like Michael Grimm lost their rights as a price for their crimes," she said in a statement that also noted Grimm couldn't vote for president in 2016, but would have been able to under Cuomo's order.

Grimm's camp said his rights had not been restored in time for the presidential election, but that he was able to vote -- for Nicole Malliotakis -- in the 2017 election. Asked to respond to Donovan's campaign, Grimm in a statement first bashed "the media's hypocrisy" surrounding his conviction in a statement.

"All I'll say is that I fought in battle to defend Dan Donovan's right to support John Kasich for president and to then vote against every single one of President Trump's major initiatives," he said, arguing Donovan was trying to deflect from his voting record.

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