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In New York, Most Parolees Can Now Vote—But Many County Websites Say They Can’t

As Thursday’s election approaches, confusion reigns.

Screenshot of the NYC Board of Elections website (September 11, 2018).Emma Whitford

In May, Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York announced his first round of conditional pardons granting voting rights to 24,086 of the state’s roughly 36,000 parolees. “The right to vote is fundamental and it is unconscionable to deny that basic right of citizenship to New Yorkers who have paid their debt to society,” Cuomo stated at the time.

But a review by The Appeal found that notice of the governor’s message had not filtered down to the state’s more than 50 county-level Board of Elections websites, well past the Aug. 19 deadline to register to vote in Thursday’s state primary election.  

As of this week, more than half of the websites, including New York City’s (which serves  the city’s five counties)—home to approximately 16,000 parolees—stated explicitly that parolees do not have the right to vote. These sites feature some variation of the “Voter Qualifications” tab on the New York City Board of Elections website: To register to vote, it says, “you must… not be serving a jail sentence or be on parole for a felony conviction.”

Other county websites either linked to the state Board of Elections website, which updated on August 21 with the qualification that parolees cannot vote “unless parolee pardoned” (no reference to the executive order); or to PDFs of voter registration forms that state parolees cannot vote.

“I assume these [forms] were printed before the actual executive order,” surmised Isabel Zeitz-Moskin, an organizer for the National Action Network. The websites, however, “have no excuse.”

Parole officers across the state received instructions this spring to hand-deliver voter restoration pardons and voter registration forms to their parolees, according to the New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision. Parolees who don’t meet with their officers frequently can also look up their pardon status on the DOCCS website. But criminal justice advocates told The Appeal that misinformation on websites and forms has only compounded confusion among parolees.

“There are folks who, although they have received the pardon, are still very, very skeptical about being actually able to vote because they are hearing misinformation about this,” said Khalil Cumberbatch, associate vice president of policy at the Fortune Society, a re-entry organization based in New York City that has coordinated voter registration events for parolees this summer.

Cumberbatch added that while he’s been impressed by parole officers’ ability to quickly distribute forms, “we haven’t been in any communication with the governor’s office about coordination of efforts around registering people to vote.”

“There’s been a lot of confusion,” echoed Zeitz-Moskin. “I’ve been doing outreach outside of parole offices, and when I tell them they can [vote] they think they can’t. And then when I give them the form they say, ‘Oh I think my PO gave me one of those.’”

Only one county Board of Elections website, Ulster County, referenced the order explicitly before The Appeal inquired. “On April 18, 2018 Governor Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order allowing Parolees the right to register to vote,” it states. “To read the full order: click here.”

Ashley Dittus, the county’s Democratic elections commissioner, expressed surprise at having the only website with current information. “I guess the reason I put it on there is, I read about it, we got the executive order, and I thought it would be important for anyone to know,” she said by phone. “We have a lot of people who use that website so I try to keep it up to date as possible.”

“It was really easy to put it on,” Dittus added. “It took a minute.”

Susan Lerner, executive director of the good-government group Common Cause New York, says that the lack of information about the order on county-level websites is disappointing if not surprising in an “extraordinarily low voter information state” like New York.

“It’s very difficult to get the Boards of Elections to do anything,” Lerner told The Appeal. “It’s particularly disappointing in this situation, however, because these are voters who have felt marginalized and who need accurate information from every official source.”

Part of the confusion stems from the fact that Cuomo’s order did not issue a blanket pardon to all parolees, says Nick Encalada-Malinowski, civil rights campaign director for the nonprofit VOCAL-NY. Under the order, the state corrections department provides monthly lists of parolees to the governor’s office for consideration on a case-by-case basis. “Individual boards of elections are not necessarily reading it the same way,” Encalada-Malinowski said.   

The Appeal contacted all of the county boards of elections across the state this week to ask whether they planned to reference the order on their websites, and received a wide range of responses. “As this is not an edict that covers every parolee, a blanket statement that all can vote would be misleading,” said Mary Lou Monahan, Republican commissioner of the Chenango County Board of Elections.  

“Since there is no change of law, per se … there is no statute to put on our website to reference,” said Onondaga County’s Democratic elections commissioner, Dustin Czarny, adding that he would consider a reference to the order after Thursday’s primary.

Other commissioners said they hadn’t realized the issue, and that they planned to update their websites in light of The Appeal’s inquiry. In total, 15 boards told The Appeal that they were in the process of—or would consider—updating their websites, either to mirror the state board’s website or with an explicit reference to the order.

Norman Green, the Democratic elections commissioner for Chautauqua County, told The Appeal he hadn’t realized that his website linked to a PDF voter registration form that stated, “To register you must … not be in prison for a felony conviction” in the top left corner.

“We’re going to do our best to have that corrected by tomorrow close of business, even if we have to cross out whatever’s there and put it back up,” he said. He had done so by the next morning.

Asked if they had received instructions on implementing the order, many county boards of elections said they had received the order by email from the state board of elections along with lists of parolees who had been pardoned, but no guidelines about website language. In Clinton County, deputy Democratic elections commissioner Brandi Lloyd said, “We not only received training but we have paperwork and procedures to follow when a parolee has come in to register to vote.”

“Honestly I did not know that [inaccurate information] was on the website,” she added. “I’ll bring it up tomorrow because that should be updated.”

John Conklin, a spokesman for the state board of elections, confirmed to The Appeal Tuesday that his office did not urge county boards to update their websites. Nor did it attempt to update registration forms, because “we had no prior warning of the Executive Order and as a result, no time to prepare for it.” The state board plans to “revisit the issue” after the general election, when they’ll have to order a new run of forms.  

“The governor’s executive order did nothing to change the statutory qualifications for registering to vote. He only took advantage of an existing provision in the law that allows all governors to issue pardons,” Conklin stated. “As a result we saw no reason to change the qualifications on the website or the forms.”

Conklin did however confirm the addition of unless parolee pardoned” to the state board’s website, acknowledging “the volume of calls and emails we received asking questions.”

Cuomo’s office did not comment on the website discrepancies by press time. The New York City board of elections also did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

To mitigate confusion this summer, criminal justice reform groups in New York City have hosted town halls on parolee voting rights, including one in Brooklyn last month, to explain the executive order. VOCAL-NY has communicated with about 70 parolees outside parole offices, about 30 people at town halls, and about 2,000 people over text message in coordination with the New York Civic Engagement Table.

VOCAL-NY has helped only 15 to 20 parolees actually fill out their voter registration forms to date. However, the group says Cuomo’s office was instrumental in getting them approval to help register voters inside parole offices. That initiative launches this week.

Fortune Society, which says it has helped roughly 250 parolees register in New York City, also invited primary candidates to speak to parolees in August. Attorney general candidates Leecia Eve and Letitia James and gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon have participated so far. (Attorney general candidates Zephyr Teachout and Sean Patrick Maloney postponed, according to Fortune Society; conversations are ongoing with Cuomo’s office.)

Still, advocates worry that their outreach efforts in New York City area aren’t being matched upstate. “Most of the proactivity is coming not from any government bureaucracies, but from nonprofits, and there’s an abundance here in the city,” said Zeitz-Moskin. “We have chapters in Buffalo and Syracuse and I’ve given them a training. And to an extent they’ve been doing some registration, but they don’t have the same capacity.”

Codifying parolee voting rights into law would go a long way toward mitigating confusion, says Encalada-Malinowski of VOCAL-NY.

“People leaving prison should be getting this documentation,” he added. “As you leave prison, you get your certificate. You get your voter registration form. You get explained how to do this stuff. It can’t happen … county by county.”