By Karen Savage
Diana Ortiz remembers breaking into a huge smile the minute she saw her name on the voting roster. It was November 2, 2010. She walked proudly into the voting booth and, like more than 80 percent of the voters in Harlem’s 15th District, cast her vote for Charles Rangel to represent her in the United States House of Representatives.
For many voters, the day was almost routine, just another in a long string of election day wins for Rangel, who’s served in the House since 1971. But Ortiz, was convicted of murder when she was 18, the day was significant. She was 45 years old and voting for the first time after spending more than 20 years in prison for a murder conviction.
“I missed getting to vote for Obama,” said Ortiz, referring to Barack Obama’s 2008 election with a hint of remorse. “But I was just thrilled I was able to finally vote.”
In New York, where 16 and 17-year olds are automatically charged as adults, anyone convicted of a felony loses their right to vote while incarcerated and many formerly incarcerated individuals – and even some parole officers and election officials – think that right is lost until those individuals have completed their parole. Even the New York State Voter Registration Form indicates one must not be in prison or on parole for a felony conviction in order to register.
But a confusing and little-known process allows parolees in New York to obtain certificates that will restore the right to vote.
Most often used to help obtain jobs and housing, Certificates of Good Standing and Certificates of Relief from Disability are intended to demonstrate that parolees have been rehabilitated, and their crimes should no longer be held against them.
The current process was implemented in 2006, when the goals of New York’s Penal Law were amended to include the goal of “successful and productive reentry and reintegration into society.” The goal was to make it easier for individuals to apply for housing and jobs upon reentry and to encourage civic participation, such as voting.
The problem is few parolees are told how to obtain these certificates, or that they even exist. Some parolees have to apply for them, while others have certificates issued automatically. Many who have been issued certificates are never told how to use them and some who are granted certificates are never notified.
As far as she knows, Ortiz, who had been incarcerated for all of her adult life when she was released from prison in 2006, was never issued a certificate. She didn’t even try to vote until she was finished with parole.
But now Ortiz wonders if she may have been eligible to vote for Obama all along.
“I had no idea that was possible,” she said.
Community advocates have long claimed New York’s voter disenfranchisement policy has roots in racist attempts to restrict black and Latino voting rights.
Joseph “Jazz” Hayden served nine years for a manslaughter conviction and was released on parole in 1997. He became an advocate for ex-offenders and says voter disenfranchisement has a disproportional impact on black and Latino communities. In 2000, he sued then Governor Pataki and then Chairperson of the New York State Board of Elections Carol Berman.
In the suit Hayden – and other black and Latino plaintiffs who later joined him – alleged that the loss of the right to vote is a violation of the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act of 1964. They pointed to data showing blacks and Latinos are more likely to be arrested than their white counterparts and are more likely to receive harsher sentences.
In 2006, the Southern District Court in New York ruled against Hayden, saying restoring voting rights for those incarcerated or on parole was not what Congress intended when passing the Voting Rights Act.
Circuit Judge Sonya Sotomayor, a Bronx native and now U.S. Supreme Court Justice, was among five who dissented, writing that the Voting Rights Act, “subjects felony disenfranchisement and all other voting qualifications to its coverage.”
“At the core of this is racism. It’s as simple as that. This is a way to curtain a population and curtain their participation – and it’s been effective,” said Hayden, who still advocates on behalf of those on parole.
“We need to roll back felon disenfranchisement and eliminate it all together,” he added. “But until we do, we need to make it possible to return the right to vote as soon as they’re released from prison.”
According to a 2016 Sentencing Project report on voter disenfranchisement, nearly 6 million individuals in the United States are unable to vote due to felony convictions.
“While they’re out on parole, they’re paying taxes, which flies in the face of the founding fathers concern about no taxation without representation,” said Hayden. “They’re taking care of families, living in communities – they should have the right to vote.”
Across the U.S., states’ disenfranchisement laws vary widely. Maine and Vermont allow individuals to vote while incarcerated, while 12 states, including Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, Tennessee, Virginia and Wyoming, permanently revoke an individual’s right to vote after a felony conviction. Maryland recently restored voting rights for those on probation or parole.
New York, Colorado, Connecticut and California prohibit those with felony convictions from voting while in prison or parole. In New York, voting rights are restored for parolees who obtain certificates.
According to the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision, more than 89,000 New Yorkers are disenfranchised. About 53,000 of those are incarcerated and 36,000 are on parole. But the policy of preventing prisoners and parolees from voting adversely affects African Americans more than other New Yorkers. According to data from the New York Civil Liberties Union, one out of every 24 African Americans in New York is unable to vote, compared to one out of every 121 voters of all races.
According to attorney and City University of New York scholar in residence Heather Garretson, the certificates don’t guarantee a job, but they do indicate a “presumption of rehabilitation” and eliminate licensing restrictions that otherwise prevent parolees from obtaining social worker, real estate and other professional licenses.
Individuals with only one felony are eligible for a certificate of relief from disability immediately upon release from prison. The term ‘disability’ refers to freedoms that are revoked when on parole. Individuals with two or more felonies can apply for a certificate of good conduct, but must wait at least three years after they are released.
Both certificates allow individuals to vote while on parole, something many don’t learn about until years after their parole has ended. It’s unknown how many of those now on parole are eligible to apply for each certificate.
Attorney and City University of New York scholar in residence Heather Garretson recently completed a study on certificate programs that focused on New York’s certificate programs. April 6, 2016. Karen Savage/CUNY Graduate School of Journalism
Garretson said that while New York corrections policy says that those who have been convicted of only one felony should be issued a certificate of relief from disability upon release, corrections officials often don’t follow that policy.
“Some people come home with certificates, some don’t,” said Garretson, who recently published “Legislating Forgiveness,” a research paper on post-conviction certificate programs. She said there are facilities that routinely send people home with a certificate and the knowledge they need to know how to use it, but that’s the exception, not the norm.
James Lloyd, 51, was released from Woodbourne in September 2010 after serving five years for criminal possession of a controlled substance. He has only one felony conviction and once released, said he found out from Exodus Transitional Community, an East Harlem organization that works with formerly incarcerated men and women, that he was eligible for a certificate of relief from disability.
With help from his parole officer, he completed the lengthy application, which included answering questions about his employment, housing, the number of times married and giving the names of individuals he cohabitated with but never married. The form was then notarized and submitted to the New York Department of Corrections and Community Supervision Certificate Review Unit in Albany, along with proof of employment, payment of income taxes and payment of restitution or fines. Lloyd said he was issued a certificate of relief from disability in June 2011.
“It opened up some doors as far as employment, because it’s supposed to hide the fact that I have that felony,” Lloyd said. “It helped me with trying to look for a job. That’s all I used it for.”
Like Ortiz, Lloyd later learned he could have used the certificate to vote.
“A lot of parole officers they don’t really tell you that,” said Lloyd. “It’s like picking teeth to get them to say certain things you can use certificate of relief for. That needs to be out there because there’s a lot of brothers and sisters that don’t know.”
Lloyd was released from parole before the 2012 presidential election and registered to vote.
He said he’ll never forget walking into PS 112 in Astoria, Queens, his wife and 18-year-old daughter, Jamese, by his side.
“It was just a nice day, a little brisk, but the sun was shining,” he said. “And it seemed to me it was shining even more so because I was on my way to the school to go and vote.”
Lloyd said going to the polls with his daughter was one of the best days of his life, and that voting for the first black president made it that much sweeter.
“I voted for Obama,” he said proudly. “And I know there were a lot of us voting for Obama, but I feel like my one little vote helped him get there.”
Garretson wonders how many more individuals on parole could have voted in 2012 and more importantly, how many are eligible to vote in the 2016 presidential election but won’t even try because they don’t know their right to vote can be restored.
Ramon Caba, now the program manager at Exodus Transitional Community, was recently released from parole and plans to vote in the presidential elections. He and his family moved to New York from the Dominican Republic when he was just 7 years old. He credits his mother for encouraging him to get his citizenship and to vote, something she wasn’t allowed to do.
“She always said if you don’t vote then you can’t complain,” he said.
Caba said most of the people he works with at Exodus are on parole and, like Lloyd, few knew their voting rights could be restored before coming to Exodus.
“I think it’s a lack of information, a lot of people are misinformed,” said Caba, who was on parole himself until February 2016.
“DOCCS is not doing the best job disseminating this information – even senior counselors and parole officers don’t know this is a priority,” he said, adding that it’s imperative that everyone be able to vote in the 2016 presidential election.
Garretson feels that there’s a general apathy throughout the corrections system when it comes to sharing information with parolees that will allow them to regain their rights.
“They did pass the law in 2011 that said if you’re eligible for a certificate of relief from disability, and you make your board, you should go home with one,” she said. But, she added, mechanisms need to be in place to ensure that happens in every case at all facilities.
Garretson pointed out that streamlining the certificate process is one of 12 recommendations made by the Council on Community Re-Entry and Reintegration. According to their website, the Council’s recommendations are intended to reduce barriers for individuals with criminal histories.
The New York Department of Community Corrections and Supervision confirmed that individuals who are issued certificates are eligible to vote. When asked for the number of certificates applied for and granted between 2005 and 2016, we were instructed to file a FOIL request.
In response, Assistant Counsel David Harvey wrote, “Please be advised, the certificates are located in individual inmate and parolee files. As such, the records are not maintained in a manner that allows for practical retrieval.”
The New York State Board of Elections, the agency responsible for the administration and enforcement, doesn’t know who’s been issued certificates.
“I am not aware of any database that we have access to which provides information on CRD’s [certificates of relief from disability],” said spokesman John Conklin via email.
“We receive information from Department of Corrections on convicted felons, but nothing else. The statute does not provide for any database like that, nor am I aware of any that exist,” he added.
Election law says the state election board is responsible for disseminating the names of those convicted of felonies to local election boards, who are responsible for registering voters in their area.
It’s unclear how local election boards check to see who is and who isn’t eligible to vote.
We asked the New York City Board of Elections to explain the process they use to confirm voter eligibility, but did not receive a response in time for publication.
One parolee says election boards don’t always check. He was released in 2013 after serving 22 years for murder and is still on parole. He says he easily registered to vote when he applied for a driver’s license shortly after being released.
Because giving false information when registering to vote – to the best of his knowledge, he did not have a certificate at the time – could subject him to a $5,000 fine and up to four years in prison, we will not use his name.
He provided a letter from the Monroe County Board of Elections that states, “Your application for voter registration has been received and processed. You are eligible to vote in the November General Election.”
He voted in 2013, but missed the New York presidential primary because he recently moved. He said he plans to register and vote in the presidential election in the fall.
“Technically they tell you you can’t vote, but let me tell you, there’s nobody checking,” he said.
It’s not just state agencies who don’t know who does and who doesn’t have a certificate. In some cases, even those who have been awarded certificates don’t know.
Lisa Winters, 52, served 18 months in Edgecombe Correctional Facility for grand larceny and forgery. She said she knew nothing about certificates when she came home on November 21, 2014.
“I thought that I wasn’t allowed to vote until I was off parole,” said Winters, adding that she’s always been very active in her community and regularly campaigns for local, state and national candidates.
With a background in social work, she now works for Exodus Transitional Community, where she learned the importance of having a certificate.
One day she called the Department of Corrections and Community Supervision on behalf of a client and decided to inquire about applying for a certificate herself.
“They said I had been issued a certificate of relief from disabilities on November 24, 2014. And I never knew,” said Winters. “I said, ‘are you kidding?’ Where did you mail it to? I haven’t moved in 17 years.”
“For a year my voting rights were restored and who knew?” she said, adding that she had always voted before her incarceration, but didn’t think she was eligible while on parole.
“I vote in all the elections, local, federal, all of them, and I would have still done so,” she said.
Winters finished her parole and recently voted in the New York Presidential primary
“It feels great and you know, it’s such a big deal to exercise your voting rights,” she said, pointing proudly to the “I voted” sticker on her collar.
Winters said she plans to continue to work with individuals who aren’t aware that they can vote. “I’m really helping people, calling parole officers, advocating for people,” she said.
Ultimately, Garretson said improving reentry is good for all involved. “It’s cheaper, it’s more humane and it’s more socially responsible to be like ‘when you come home, there are ways to exist and be successful.’” she said.
For Lloyd, success means exercising his right to vote.
“I can’t explain it to you, like, it’s just a great feeling,” said Lloyd. “When we was in prison and going by that number and how they treat you and that whole situation, like you feel like you’re not a person, your rights, your vote anything like that, it doesn’t count for anything.”
“And I know that my stuff counts now,” he added. “It feels great.”