Testimony of Eric Friedman, New York City Campaign Finance Board Assistant Executive Director for Public Affairs, to the New York City City Council Committees on Governmental Operations and Criminal Justice

October 03, 2018

Good afternoon Chair Cabrera and Chair Powers, and the members of the Committees on Governmental Operations and Criminal Justice. My name is Eric Friedman and I am the Assistant Executive Director for Public Affairs at the New York City Campaign Finance Board (CFB).

Thank you for the invitation to provide testimony on the bills under consideration today.

The New York City Charter directs the CFB, with the advice and assistance of the Voter Assistance Advisory Committee (VAAC), to increase registration and voting, particularly among underrepresented populations. In a strong, healthy democracy every eligible citizen should be able to register to vote and cast a ballot with ease. But this is not always the case, especially for those who have been through the criminal justice system. Voting in New York State is nowhere near as easy as it should be. Spending time in a corrections facility should not be an additional barrier to exercising one’s right to vote.

Our extensive experience registering voters in the field is consistent with that of other organizations that work with this population—simply put, there is a lot of confusion about voting eligibility for people with criminal convictions. It is crucial that clear and accurate information is available so that everyone, including people with convictions, can exercise their right to vote. When we speak to voters, their friends, and their family members in these communities, we often have to ask a series of questions to learn about their status in order to give them useful advice about their eligibility. We believe the three bills under consideration today represent an important step forward for this population, because the Department of Probation and Department of Correction are best positioned to provide individualized advice about a person’s eligibility if they have a conviction.

As you know, Governor Cuomo signed an executive order in April of this year to pardon individuals on parole, restoring voting rights to 35,000 New York State residents. While this is a significant step in the right direction, there is still more work to be done—particularly around voter education. In response to the governor’s executive order, we are working with the Center for Law and Social Justice at Medgar Evers College and a coalition of voting rights and criminal justice organizations to inform parolees about their voting rights. We’re preparing a clear, easy-to-follow pamphlet that will help anyone convicted of a crime understand their current eligibility status.

These efforts supplement the work we do in accordance with Local Law 29 of 2000 to facilitate agency-based voter registration. The CFB provides covered agencies and their frontline staff with training on how to provide voter registration forms in their offices and assist voters in completing them. Both the Departments of Probation and Correction are covered under LL29, and we have been working with staff in both agencies to implement the requirements of the law. For example, next Tuesday, October 9th, we’ll be giving a voter registration training to frontline staff at Riker’s Island. These trainings are an opportune time to give staff the tools they need to understand and explain the complexities in our election system.

To support and enhance this work, we need to do everything we can to provide clear and concise information about who is eligible to vote. That’s why we’re supportive of the legislation before us today. Int. No. 367 and Int. No. 514 are simple measures that will ensure the Departments of Probation and Correction help New Yorkers in the criminal justice system effectively navigate our complex state election laws by presenting them with clear information. We’re happy to work with the Departments of Correction and Probation to provide the tools they need to ensure New Yorkers of their right to vote. Their institutional knowledge, along with our guidance, can help New Yorkers who are navigating the criminal justice system to cast a ballot.

Int. No. 1115 would formalize the distribution of guidance about the voting rights of formerly incarcerated people and include it in the CFB’s Charter mandate to facilitate agency-based registration, a much-needed step to guarantee that all LL29 agencies can assist formerly incarcerated New Yorkers exercise their right to vote.

Moving forward, we’re happy to continue working with the Council and other LL29 agencies to help underrepresented populations have their voices heard. We believe giving these tools to the employees who work directly with New Yorkers in our criminal justice system is the most effective way to get more people involved in our elections. But it’s clear Albany must take action. New Yorkers deserve to have their voting rights restored upon release from prison, which will eliminate confusion about their eligibility. We will continue to participate in this important conversation, and we look forward to working with you to make sure all New Yorkers have a voice in our democracy.

Again, thank you for the opportunity to testify today. I am happy to answer any questions.
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