Your Donation Will Be Doubled. Support Today!

To Honor MLK, Let New Yorkers in Prison Vote

Four lawmakers explain why they introduced legislation to finally end felony disenfranchisement in New York.

Marchers holding signs demanding voting rights during the March on Washington
Marion S. Trikosko, colorized by Jordan J. Lloyd | Unsplash

What would Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. say about the fact that embedded in New York State’s Constitution is a provision that disenfranchises the more than 30,000 New Yorkers who are currently incarcerated in New York state prisons, three-quarters of whom are Black and Brown?

As we reflect on Dr. King’s life and the legacy of all of the courageous activists who were part of the great Black freedom struggle of the 1950s and 60s, we are compelled to take urgent action to accomplish one of the goals to which he devoted his life—guaranteeing the right to vote to all. Dr. King considered the right to vote as central to all advances in civil and human rights in this country, and as “the foundation stone for political action.”

Inspired by Dr. King’s work, we have introduced legislation to amend the New York State Constitution to remove the bar on voting by incarcerated people and to affirmatively recognize the right of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals to vote. Our bill S. 316/A. 412 would open the door to ending the nearly 200-year-old practice in New York of felony disenfranchisement.

Why is this so important? In New York, there are tens of thousands of people who are cruelly barred from participating in our democratic structures and from exercising what Dr. King called the “number one” civil right.

Dr. King viewed the right to vote in the context of the history of slavery and as a cruel vestige of Jim Crow laws and practices in both the South and the North. He believed, as he said in a 1959 speech, that the success of the Black struggle for voting rights would open “a new era . . . for all Americans” and would, “enlarge democracy for all people.” Thus, full suffrage is not only morally right but also ends the lingering demeaning and racist “badge of slavery” that felony disenfranchisement represents, and would benefit all of us.

In a 1965 New York Times Magazine article Dr. King reiterated this theme, writing, “When the full power of the ballot is available to my people, it will not be exercised merely to advance our cause alone. We have learned in the course of our freedom struggle that the needs of 20 million Negroes are not truly separable from those of the nearly 200 million whites and Negroes in America, all of whom will benefit from a color-blind land of plenty that provides for the nourishment of each man’s body, mind, and spirit.”

Unfortunately, the denial of full suffrage is part of our state constitution in New York, despite reforms in recent years that restored the right to vote to New Yorkers who have been released from prison.

Amending the New York State Constitution to rid New York of this denial of human rights is the right thing to do. Other states have already taken such steps. New York must join them. All New Yorkers will benefit from increased opportunities for civic and political engagement by all of our citizens. And encouraging such engagement will assist people in planning for re-entry into their communities post-incarceration and will make our neighborhoods safer.

We urge all of our colleagues in the New York State Legislature to support the passage of S. 316/A. 412.

Senator Salazar and Assemblymember Epstein are the sponsors of the voting rights constitutional amendment. Senator Myrie and Assemblywoman Walker are the Chairs of the Elections and Election Law Committees, respectively, in the Senate and Assembly.