New York Times

March 25, 2006



Go Away: You Can't Vote


The right to vote should never be curtailed in a way that disenfranchises a whole class of people. This view is gaining traction even in the Deep South, which pioneered the shameful state laws that barred nearly four million ex-felons, parolees and probationers from voting in the last national election. It's heartening to see those laws being modified or repealed across the country. But states will need to re-educate elections officials, who are often dismally ignorant of election laws and biased against people who have been convicted of even minor crimes. As a result, many men and women who have paid their debts to society remain disenfranchised, even in states that guarantee them the right to vote.


One good example is New York, where the State Board of Elections has failed to uphold a state law that guarantees voting rights for people on probation, as well as for those who have completed their maximum sentences or been discharged from parole. As is completely appropriate, the law presumes that ex-offenders are as eligible as anyone else once they meet age, citizenship and residency requirements.


Unfortunately, the law isn't being followed, as was vividly documented in a new study by two civil rights groups, the Brennan Center for Justice, and Demos. Canvassers who contacted all of the state's county election boards found that nearly 40 percent were actually ignorant of the state's voting rights law and that nearly one-third continued to disenfranchise probationers and former inmates who were eligible to register and vote under state law.


This is all the more distressing because the State Board of Elections was made aware of all these problems after a similar survey three years ago. New promises to look into the matter aren't good enough.


State officials need to require every worker at every local board of elections to know the law, and make their own spot-checks to make sure that the law is being followed. It should do this quickly, before prisoners' rights advocates file a lawsuit that could well put the state's elections under a layer of court supervision that would be far more difficult to contend with than simply doing the right thing now.


Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company