Glenn Martin served five years in prison and two-and-a-half on parole. He thought he’d paid his debt. But when he tried to register to vote, his past seemed to follow. The Bronx Board of Elections requested a “Certificate of Relief” proving his rehabilitation, a document Martin didn’t have. “You make this transition, you pay taxes, you want your voice to be heard,” he said. “It’s very frustrating.”
Fortunately for Martin and thousands of other ex-felons around the state, that process is now changing. On Wednesday, the New York State Board of Elections sent an internal memo encouraging local boards to stop requesting documents that were hard for former prisoners or parolees to come by. Instead, it states, they should use the Department of Corrections’ online database to check an applicant’s status.
“Our democracy is founded on the idea that all votes are treated equally,” said Erika Wood, staff attorney with the Legal Action Center, where Martin also works. Her agency pushed for this reform, along with the nonprofit Community Service Society and the Brennan Center for Justice.
Wood first learned of the problem in February, when several ex-felons brought in letters they had received from local elections boards when they tried to register. “Our records indicate that you were at one time a convicted felon. Therefore, at this time, it is not possible for us to process your application,” reads one letter from the Bronx Board of Elections. When asked whether practices would change with the new memo, Thelma Toonkel, a supervisor in the board’s Death and Felony department, said she hadn’t seen it.
Pat Murray, deputy counsel for the state elections board, said the memo may not have gone to each borough, but her agency will make sure the boards comply. “This is not as big a deal as the advocates are making it,” she said. “When concerns are brought to us, we respond to them.”
That comes as welcome news to Joseph “Jazz” Hayden. Currently on parole, he is the lead plaintiff in a federal class action lawsuit against the state board and the governor. He hopes to overturn the law that prohibits inmates and parolees from voting. “Being a prisoner puts you in the category of the least powerful people in this country. It’s like slavery,” he said. “This is an idea whose time has come.”