Who Gets to Vote? On Race and Language Access in New York

Most of us wouldn’t hesitate to call New York City one of the most diverse and progressive cities in the country. But when it comes to voting rights and making sure that communities of color and other marginalized voters in our state have access to the ballot box, we’ve still got a long way to go.

This Black History Month, as we consider the state of voting rights in New York, it’s important to note that voting better isn’t just about convenience. It’s about addressing systemic barriers that disproportionately affect low-income communities, communities of color, and immigrants. The right to vote and have a say in our democracy is one of our most important rights. Shouldn’t we do more as a state to make sure as many eligible New Yorkers as possible have access to the ballot?   

Read on to learn more about two ways we can increase access to the ballot for these communities. 

Restore Voting Rights to Parolees

Currently, New York State election law states that people with felony convictions can’t register to vote while they’re on parole. However, county election officials often fail to distinguish between those on probation and those on parole, which has led to confusion and illegal disenfranchisement throughout the state.

This is a serious issue. It’s no secret that felony disenfranchisement disproportionately impacts low-income communities and communities of color. According to the Brookings Institution, “black Americans are 2.7 times as likely to be arrested for drug-related offenses,” despite the fact that “black and white Americans sell and use drugs at similar rates.” And while black Americans make up only 14% of the state population of New York, they make up almost half of its prisoners. When it comes to sentencing with the system, black Americans also tend to receive harsher punishments than their white counterparts. According to a 2016 analysis by The New York Times on parole hearings, “fewer than one in six black or Hispanic men was released at his first hearing, compared with one in four white men.”

Last April, we took the first few steps towards extending the right to vote to parolees, when Governor Cuomo signed an Executive Order to that effect. Previously, parolees would have had to wait until they had been discharged from parole or reached the maximum expiration date of their sentence. As a result of this order, some 35,000 parolees in the state of New York were eligible to have their voting rights restored. In order for parolees to have their rights restored, they must be pardoned by the governor, and parolees can use a look-up tool on the State Department of Corrections website to see whether or not they’ve been pardoned. While the process has begun, with Governor Cuomo issuing over 24,000 conditional pardons in May of 2018, it’s unclear if all 35,000 parolees have now been pardoned because there is little information about the process. And even for people who have received pardons, the burden is still on the individual to re-register to vote.

Although the governor’s order represents an important step in reinstating the right to vote for so many New Yorkers, it doesn’t actually change our election laws. While Governor Cuomo is taking an expansive approach to voting rights, future administrations may not be as proactive.  For example, in 2006, then-Florida Governor Charlie Crist created automatic rights restoration for people with non-violent felony convictions. But in 2011, when Rick Scott became governor, he eliminated these reforms and created even more barriers to voting. The good news is that in the November 2018 general election, Florida voters approved a ballot measure that changed election laws for good, restoring voting rights automatically to 1.4 million Floridians. In order to ensure the long-term protection of the voting rights of parolees, New York must do the same.

Language Access at the Polls

Limited English proficiency (“LEP”) should not be a barrier to voting. Currently, New York State provides information and assistance to voters in various languages in accordance with the federal Voting Right Act, but we can and should be doing more. Increasing language services at the polls is particularly important for New York City, where the LEP population is about 1.8 million, or 23% of New York City’s total population. However, about 17% of this population speaks a language that isn’t covered under the VRA.

There are plenty of other large cities in the US that offer language assistance above and beyond what is required in the VRA. For instance, Los Angeles County provides language assistance in eight languages (Armenian, Chinese, Cambodian/Khmer, Farsi, Korean, Spanish, Tagalog/Filipino and Vietnamese), which is four languages beyond what is required by the VRA. And in Chicago, the Clerk’s Office is required to provide language assistance in Spanish, Chinese, and Hindi. Voters or election judges in Chicago can also call a language assistance hotline, which provides translators in Polish in addition to the covered languages. In a state like New York, where about one in eight people speak a language other than English, our legislature needs to recognize the importance of expanding language access beyond what is required by the VRA.

In 2018, New York City voters passed a ballot proposal to establish a Civic Engagement Commission. The Commission has been tasked with creating, among other things, “a program for providing language interpreters at poll sites in New York City, to be implemented for the general election in 2020.” Currently, language assistance is provided in Spanish, Chinese, Korean, and Bengali, but under this program, interpreter services in Russian, Haitian Creole, Arabic, Urdu, French, and Polish could be provided as well.

While the Civic Engagement Commission will increase the number of interpreters available on Election Day, the proposal did not revise other parts of the City Charter that could improve overall language access regarding voting and our elections. For example, the Commission will not be required to translate the ballot or other voter education materials into languages beyond our current offerings. So while the Commission is taking steps in the right direction, we need legislation at the state level that will expand language access at the polls and in the form of written materials, so more LEP voters can participate in our democracy.

Why This Matters

Voting is how we the people hold our elected officials accountable. It’s also how we can make an impact on the issues that matter most to us. And as a democracy, we only get stronger when we add more voices to the democratic process. It’s time to review the outdated systems we’ve operated within for so long and make sure that voting is a right that is easily accessible for all of us.

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