Cabrera slams voter guide ‘disenfranchising’ parolees


What appeared to be a matter of oversight on the part of the city’s Campaign Finance Board actually could have reverberating negative consequences for thousands of potential voters. So claims a local lawmaker who’s doubled down on preventing a déjà vu of the blunder.

Councilman Fernando Cabrera denounced the board’s voter guide mailed days before the general election Nov. 6, which he says incorrectly stated convicted felons can’t vote.

The guide declares residents have the right to vote in the election if they “are not currently incarcerated or on parole for a felony.”

That’s a “serious error,” said Greg Faulkner, Cabrera’s chief of staff, since part of that statement just isn’t true.

“I’m deeply disturbed by this irresponsible action by the CFB, which will disenfranchise many voters,” Cabrera said. He chairs the council’s governmental operations committee, which held a hearing last month on a bill that aims to assist eligible parolees with voter registration. That bill would require the city’s Voter Assistance Advisory Committee to develop guidance for voter registration agencies to better inform eligible parolees of their right to cast ballots. It also would require that these agencies, upon a parolee applicant’s request, check if their voting rights have been restored.

If Cabrera has his way, it’ll see a vote before the end of the year.


Paying their debts

In New York, residents can vote after incarceration for a felony conviction while on probation, or once they’ve completed parole, according to the New York Civil Liberties Union. Their rights are automatically restored in these cases, but they must re-register in order to vote. Registration doesn’t require any special documentation.

But last April, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order restoring the right to vote immediately following release for most residents on parole after incarceration for a felony. This meant that going forward, the governor’s office would review the information of each person released to community supervision in the state and issue a partial executive pardon restoring each approved person’s ability to register and vote.

The governor’s office touted the measure as one that would improve civic engagement, reduce recidivism and promote public safety, adding that parole-based voting restrictions have a disproportionate impact on minority residents. Black and Hispanic residents comprise 71 percent of the affected population.

The new policy could enfranchise approximately 35,000 parolees who couldn’t vote, the Brennan Center for Justice stated after Cuomo signed the order. The action put New York in league with 14 other states and the District of Columbia that restore the right to vote upon release from incarceration.

“It is unconscionable to deny voting rights to New Yorkers who have paid their debt and have re-entered society,” Cuomo said at the time. “This reform ... will help restore justice and fairness to our democratic process. Withholding or delaying voting rights diminishes our democracy.”

Cuomo issued the first set of more than 24,000 conditional pardons last May, restoring voting rights to more than two-thirds of residents serving out a period of parole.


Preventing a relapse

Cabrera has since called on the Campaign Finance Board to develop protocol and form a committee charged with ensuring all information in its voter guide is correct. Of more than 10,000 felons who were eligible to vote, Cabrera said, some 1,500 took advantage and registered.

“My biggest concern is not only for the 1,500 that might have been disenfranchised, but in the bigger picture, for the other 8,000-plus, where they come to believe that they can’t even register to vote,” Cabrera said. “It just perpetuates a culture of misinformation.”

It’s something that was exacerbated by the city’s elections board also providing incorrect information, Cabrera said, including polling locations for some Kingsbridge residents leading up to the primary last September.

The finance board “completely agreed” to Cabrera’s request, the councilman said. “They took responsibility for disseminating misinformation. They didn’t try to deny the fact of what took place. Yet, nobody caught it.”

The council is gearing up for a hearing on elections processes in coming months, Cabrera said, where they’ll address how to avoid some of the snafus that occurred this year.

“We had the worst election day process that I have ever seen, that any of my colleagues have ever seen,” Cabrera said. The voter guide blunder “is just part of that narrative, where those who are in charge of protecting and assuring that our most important civic rights be exercised utterly failed, which is awful.”

The Campaign Finance Board acknowledged the language printed in its voter guide wasn’t updated to reflect Cuomo’s executive order restoring voting rights to most parolees, in an Oct. 31 statement.

“We regret the error and any confusion this has caused,” according to the statement. “We have updated our website to provide more clarity on this complicated issue, and will do everything we can to get this information to the people who need it.”


Fixing the error

The board has worked throughout the year with the Brooklyn-based Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College and other organizations to speak with parolees directly and inform them of their voting rights, according to the statement, including a trip to Rikers Island that was scheduled for Nov. 2.

In addition to correcting the information on their website, the finance board put out a “robocall” Monday evening prior to the election to the approximately 1,500 parolees who were registered to vote and could have been misled by the erroneous information, spokesman Matthew Sollars said. The board also reached out to advocacy groups and nonprofits that work with parolees to provide them with the updated information.

The goal, Sollars said, was to “make sure that as many parolees who have had their voting rights restored through these conditional pardons understood that it was their right to vote on Tuesday.”

“It was an oversight,” Sollars added. “As soon as we were aware that that oversight had been made, we did what we could to rectify it.”

Cabrera says he’s counting on the Campaign Finance Board to mount an “aggressive” effort to avoid a repeat of what happened this general election, a misstep he sees as inexcusable given there was no nebulousness regarding the executive order from Cuomo’s office.

“This is how people begin to lose trust in the system and government institutions,” Cabrera said. “There was clarity from the governor’s office. There was clarity from the council. And unfortunately, the people who needed information the most, they got the wrong information.”