Under conditional pardons the governor began issuing in 2018, more than 60,000 people on parole had their voting rights restored. But only a few thousand have registered to vote, and more than 10,000 have lost their rights because of parole violations.

Adi Talwar

Alejo Rodriguez (in green) and Daud Nashid (in gray) manning a voter registration table on 3rd Avenue in East Harlem on a recent Saturday afternoon.

Alejo Rodriguez was released on parole from prison in 2017, having served a 32-year-sentence, without the right to vote—a reality for parolees with felony convictions in New York at the time. That changed when he and  24,000 other parolees received conditional pardons from Governor Cuomo in 2018.

But Rodriguez says the path to registering and voting, and the lack of voter education on the inside gave him little preparation for this exercise.

“I was released at 55 years old and I had never voted before in my life,” says Rodriguez, who went on to work for Exodus Transitional Community, a non-profit that helps formerly incarcerated people with re-entry. Rodriguez is no longer at Exodus, but still helps coordinate their voter registration. 

While Rodriguez says his parole officer informed of his pardon, many parolees remain unaware of their rights. Still others are intimidated by or disinterested in the process. And, according to state data, about one sixth of those granted conditional pardons under Cuomo have already had those rights revoked.

A limited pardon

New York State’s voting rights record for people with convictions is better than many other states. Thirty-one states bar people from voting based on criminal convictions, according to the Brennan Center. 

Until 2018, the only category of persons in New York barred from voting due to criminal records were parolees with felony convictions. While this restriction is still enshrined in state election law, Cuomo attempted to fix the problem in 2018, proclaiming in an executive order that he would be regularly granting voting rights to parolees through conditional pardons, using powers granted to the governor in the state constitution. 

What Cuomo grants is a conditional pardon that just restores voting rights. The underlying conviction is not expunged or sealed.

Under the system launched in 2018, the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision (DOCCS) every month provides a list to the governor’s office of everyone who was released on parole that month. The governor’s office reviews the list and grants the pardons. 

While the 2018 executive order states only that the governor will provide “consideration for a conditional pardon” to individuals under parole supervision, advocates said they could not find examples of those pardons being denied. An initial 24,000 people on parole were pardoned within weeks of the governor’s executive order. 

Parole violations erode reform

According to a press release from the governor’s office at the time the order was announced, the conditional pardons would “restore the right to vote upon release from incarceration and reverse disenfranchisement for thousands of New Yorkers.” 

But advocates say there are long wait times, that many people don’t know they have been pardoned. For these reasons, many are calling for a permanent legislative solution. 

In some cases, advocates told City Limits, unexplained administrative errors have led people to go months and, in at least one case, an entire year without a pardon.

Still others received a pardon, only to have it revoked. In an e-mail to City Limits, a Department of Corrections and Community Supervision spokesperson said 60,098 people have received conditional pardons since the governor’s executive order was announced in 2018. Of those, 10,093 had been revoked due to parole violations as well as arrests for new charges, DOCCS said. 

The issue of parole violations sending people back behind bars is a broader problem affecting local jails as well as state prisons and prompting a push for parole reform. Forty-one percent of all state prison admissions across New York State are for parole violations, according to a report from The Council of State Governments Justice Center.

Advocates have pointed out the ease with which people can be rearrested due to minor parole violations. People experiencing housing troubles or changing an address could inadvertently violate parole by not contacting a parole officer in a predetermined window of time, says Ivelisse Gilestra, a community organizer at College and Community Fellowship who helps register formerly incarcerated people through Justice Votes project. According to data compiled by the Vera Center, there are 176 people incarcerated in New York City jails for technical parole violations as of September 21. Not every arrest of a person on parole results in a loss of the conditional pardon, but those cases that end with a person back in prison do.

Knowledge gap

Legal disenfranchisement is the first of many barriers formerly incarcerated people deal with, including a lack of voter education in jails and prisons and after release and a distrust of the political system, those who work to register parolees say.

This may be why those who were granted pardons were not initially registering to vote at high rates. According to data compiled by the Brennan Center in 2018, about only about 1,000 of the 30,000 pardoned between April 2018 and September 2018 had registered.

“Most folks are under the impression that they can’t vote,” Gilestra says. She says that many justice-involved people are under this impression, regardless of the conditions of their release.  “It doesn’t matter if they are on parole, probation—the consensus is once you’ve been impacted by the criminal legal system you can’t vote,” she says of the views she encounters.

“Most staff and the world doesn’t even know that,” says, Kandra Clark, vice president of policy and strategy with Exodus, who was once incarcerated herself. She says poll workers often don’t know that people on parole can vote and have turned people away.  The city’s Campaign Finance Board was criticized in 2018 for not updating its voter guide, including out of date information saying people with felony convictions could not vote. The error was corrected on the CFB’s website, but not before the 32-page was sent to over 4 million people, according to WNYC.

Daud Nashid, who is formerly incarcerated and does voter outreach with Exodus, says the majority of formerly incarcerated people he meets are not aware of their voting rights. Nashid has been working to help register voters in East Harlem at East 124th Street and Madison by Marcus Garvey Park. Together with other organizations including A Little Piece of Light, Fortune Society and Democracy NYC, Exodus has helped with voter drives in four locations in Harlem every Saturday. 

“80 percent may be completely unaware of that right that they have been restored,” Nashid says. 

A power differential

Nashid say that part of the issue lies with the fact that information of this type typically flows to parolees through their parole officers. This is troubling because of the power imbalance between the two parties.

“This is not a lovey-dovey relationship, this is not even a teacher-student relationship. For the most part this is a very adverse relationship,” Nashid says.

Gilestra says a woman that she worked with who was a parolee did not have her voting rights restored an entire year after release. She relied on the parole officer to check in with DOCCS to see if the conditional pardon was granted. She finally had her rights restored through a certificate of relief. But she was never given a reason for her pardon being delayed, Gilestra says.

Throughout the process, the woman continually checked in with her parole officer, but Gilestra says parolees’ communication with parole officers is often fraught, and the woman in question happened to be very civically engaged.

“The dynamics of power in place… folks don’t feel that they should be pressuring parole officers in order to have to get results,” Gilestra says.

Parolees have other ways to access information: Anyone can access DOCCS’ Parolee Lookup website to see if their rights have been restored. But many people don’t know the site exists. 

And there can be other points of confusion: according to October 2018 City Council testimony from Sean Morales-Doyle, deputy director of the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center, the website would tell people they did not have an active voting pardon if they were no longer on parole. “It will say ‘Voting pardon issued: No,’ because you don’t need a voting pardon to be issued,” Morales-Doyle testified.

Registration can seem risky

The process of voting is also just inherently intimidating for formerly incarcerated people, says Stephanie Bazell, Director of Policy and Advocacy at Community and College Fellowship, who works on the organization’s Justice Votes project.

 “You look at the registration form, all over it it says you will be punished for perjury if anything is wrong,” says Bazell. 

In New York State’s voter registration form, at the top of the first page, a section on eligibility reads that the voter must “not be in prison or on parole for a felony conviction (unless parole pardoned or restored rights of citizenship).”

But on the bottom of page two, the form implies that submitting the document while not having voting rights could result in arrest. In the “affidavit” section requesting a signature, voters are asked to confirm that they meet “all requirements to register to vote in New York State.” Below that they must affirm, “The above information is true, I understand that if it is not true, I can be convicted and fined up to $5,000 and/or jailed for up to four years.”

Rodriguez says the process was even intimidating for himself, despite having a master’s degree and having work published in a law journal.

“Even with that background I’m still a little intimidated with the registration forms. I can just imagine what an individual who maybe did 15, 20 years, might be struggling with literacy issues, barely have a high school diploma, looking for work, I could see how they could be intimidated and say, ‘I don’t care about this,’” he says.

Legal fix proposed

The administrative confusion could be limited if no one was barred from voting due to criminal history, which is why advocates for years have been seeking a legislative solution that would grant voting rights automatically to people who are on parole. Most recently, a State senate bill in the 2019-2020 legislative session that would have done just that never received a vote.

State Senator Zellnor Myrie. who co-sponsored the bill, told City Limits by e-mail that he is pleased that the governor has been issuing pardons, but believes the process must be codified into law to limit administrative hurdles for voters who are parolees and to prevent a future governor from rescinding the rights.

“The existing pardon process is time-consuming and depends on active monitoring by the governor’s staff, who then issue pardons based on individual eligibility criteria,” Myrie wrote to City Limits. “Our legislation would simplify and streamline the process for immediately restoring voting rights for those who have completed their sentence and set them on a path to constructively re-engaging with their communities as soon as they are released.”

Myrie also linked felony disenfranchisement to New York’s history of denying voting rights to Black voters: “The history of our criminal disenfranchisement law is rooted in racist attempts to deny Black men the right to vote after the Civil War. We like to absolve ourselves of the sins of the Jim Crow South here in New York, but felony disenfranchisement is a literal vestige of racist leaders in this state who supported slavery and opposed the integration of freed Black people into our society.”

Others point out that restoring voting rights can be a key part of successful re-entry to society.

“Restoration upon release allows any person to be civically engaged and that is likely to have a positive effect on their reintegration and civic engagement,” says Perry Grossman, Senior Staff Attorney with the Voting Rights Project at NYCLU. “They shouldn’t be dependent on acts of grace like the governor’s. I appreciate the executive order but it should be law—irrevocable law.” 

Rodriguez agreed that a more durable policy is needed. “The pardon isn’t all-encompassing across the board for future generations,” he says. “The way it stands now, if another governor comes into the seat next year that pardon could be taken away.”

Wait times and the 2020 vote

An automatic restoration of voting rights would also eliminate the current lag time in receiving a pardon. The governor’s office says that it is providing pardons monthly, but some people will not be pardoned in time to vote in November.

Grossman says initially, the average wait was about six weeks. He says that anyone being released on parole with a felony conviction in late September will likely not be able to vote in this year’s presidential election. A City Limits request to DOCCS for current average wait times for pardons was not answered.

Eliza Sweren-Becker works at the Democracy Program at the Brennan Center. She says it’s counterproductive to add any extra administrative hurdles, like the pardon process, to voter registration rather than granting voting rights upon release. 

“It’s simply unnecessary and extraneous and adds red tape,” says Sweren-Becker. “We should be making it easier for people—citizens—to vote. We shouldn’t be making it harder. We should be welcoming people who are returning to our community back to all aspects of our life.”