POLL POSITION: GROUPS PUSH FOR VOTING RIGHTS

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As the city turns its attention toward the November 8 general election, two voting rights groups are kicking their own campaigns into high gear.

“Voting has never been a right in America. It has been a privilege,” said Joseph “Jazz” Hayden, campaign director for Unlock the Block, a coalition of 85 organizations working to change the law prohibiting citizens with felony records to vote.

His group was joined at a rally held last Monday outside the Board of Elections by the New York Coalition to Expand Voting Rights, a network of 57 community-based groups working to allow documented non-citizens to vote in municipal elections. Together the two coalitions represent hundreds of the thousands of New Yorkers, predominantly minorities, who can’t vote.

Participants in the rally called on the City Council to pass the Voting Rights Restoration Act (Intro. 628), a bill that would extend voting rights to documented immigrants, and create amendments to the Pro-Voter Law requiring city agencies to notify formerly incarcerated and detained people of their voting rights.

As it stands, 131,000 New Yorkers can’t vote in municipal elections due to prior felony convictions and an estimated one million legal immigrants can’t vote in New York City elections because they aren’t yet citizens, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“All New Yorkers will benefit from these two pieces of legislation,” said Cheryl Wertz, director of Government Access at New Immigrant Community Empowerment (NICE), a nonprofit organization. “Our city will be stronger when we engage all New Yorkers in our civic life and add their voices to our collective call for better schools, safer streets and access to health care.”

Jeremy Tai, the son of Chinese immigrants and an intern at NICE says he attended the speak-out for a personal reason. “My parents have been here for 20 years and they still can’t vote,” said Tai, explaining that they gave up on citizenship because the process was so burdensome.

Meanwhile, immigrants represent 15.5 percent of the New York State’s tax income, according to the Urban Institute, a nonprofit policy and research institute in Washington, DC. “This is not about immigrants and non-immigrants,” said Councilmember John Liu, who supports the Restoration Act. “The fundamental principle from the very beginning of the United States was that if you pay tax you have a vote.”

Both the Pro-Voter amendments and the immigrant voting bill will be under consideration by the City Council this fall. The first had 31 co-sponsors when it was introduced last year. The latter currently has nine sponsors on the City Council, an encouraging start said Michele Wucker, co-director of the non-profit Immigrant Voting Project. The Voting Rights Restoration Act “is an effort that will take a couple of years because it’s received as such a new idea,” she said.

More than 20 countries around the world allow their non-citizen immigrants to vote in local elections, including Chile, Sweden and the Netherlands. Diana Salas, chief researcher for the Women of Color Policy Network, a local advocacy group, hopes the U.S. will follow suit. “This is not an immigration bill,” she said, “but the principle of democracy.”

–Emma Holmgren