Fifty years ago, impressive crowds of civil rights advocates marched on Washington for equal rights, including the right to vote. People have died for it on battlefields, in demonstrations and even just trying to exercise it in the Jim Crow south. I’ll never be able to fully understand how it feels to win that right when you didn’t have it; but I’ve seen people right here in New York City who do.
I was lucky enough to work with Care for the Homeless client leaders in New York City who just completed a voter registration drive targeting homeless and recently homeless people in the city. They registered 247 new voters, and distributed over 1,250 other forms.
They signed up dozens of new voters who thought they had lost their right to vote. Some thought they’d lost the right to vote forever.
Some homeless people think they can’t vote because they have no stable address. But you don’t lose your constitutional right to vote because you’re poor or down on your luck.
The courts have established the right of people to register from a shelter, a temporary home or even from street corners or parks. One person who registered from a shelter during the drive said “now I feel like a person again.”
Many people with criminal records think they’ve lost the precious right to vote forever. In that recent voter registration effort you could almost pick out the people who thought that. Approached in a line they worked to avoid contact, often humiliated to say they’d lost their right to the vote, perhaps decades ago, with a criminal act. Embarrassed they could never stop paying the penalty for a mistake.
It was amazing – heartwarming – to see their reaction to the news that they could vote. Eyes widened, smiles erupted. It was the euphoria of good news, acceptance won and the chance to be part of society again. Sometimes it was disbelief at their newly discovered franchise. More than once a potential voter had to be shown in black-and-white that they had the right in order to believe it.
One new voter said his felony conviction was on a drug charge at age 21, decades ago. “But now I count,” he told us, beaming.
There are states that penalize a criminal record with life time disenfranchisement. That seems too high a price for a crime long ago paid for. It’s a double jeopardy penalty without chance for redemption.
New York isn’t one of those states, and most aren’t. In New York, if you’re not currently incarcerated or on parole for a felony, you aren’t barred from voting. Someone released and on probation is not barred from voting. A person who has served their sentence including completing parole isn’t barred from voting.
Many of the cruelest felony disenfranchisement laws are in the south, some growing out of the Jim Crow era. In a country where criminal justice punishments are disproportionately visited on minority communities that’s a concern. The Sentencing Project reports 5.85 million Americans lost the right to vote in the 2012 election – 2.5 percent of the voting population – due to criminal records. That includes over 3 million who fully served their sentences and aren’t on probation or parole.
Those disenfranchised for past records include 8 percent of all African American men. In Florida, a state President Obama won by 250,000 votes in 2008, and George W. Bush officially carried by 537 votes to win the presidency in 2000, disenfranchisement includes one in ten African Americans.
There are probably hundreds of thousands of ex-offenders in New York City right now with the right to vote who just don’t know it. Some of them would deeply treasure that right. Each of them should be aware of it and have that chance. It’s also a reminder to everyone else to get out and vote.