Councilman fights myths about ex-cons’ voter rights

By Rahima Nasa. Maria Reyes-Scales says she was misinformed about her right to vote.

Councilman Rafael Salamanca wants to make sure that New Yorkers who have spent time in jail aren’t duped into believing they can’t vote.

Former felons, like everyone else, have until Oct. 14 to register to vote in local and national elections, even if they have been released from prison and cleared parole, according to New York state law. Even those on probation are eligible to vote.

Salamanca announced his support for new legislation that would more carefully informed the formerly incarcerated of their rights, at a press conference at his Longwood headquarters on Sept. 30.

Ex-offenders fill out the same forms as everyone else and no special documentation is required. However, information about voting rights isn’t always clear to ex-offenders.

“Once a rumor like this has spread, it is hard to penetrate it. That’s why we urgently need legislation like this,” said Walter Rodriguez, director of community organizing at Bronx Defenders Service, a Melrose nonprofit. Rodriguez recalled many instances in which South Bronx residents wrongly believed they had permanently lost their right to vote because they had a criminal record.

Salamanca said he learned of the common misconception while he was running for council in February, and encountered instances of it again last month. He said many people, including two of his own friends who are ex-offenders, did not realize that ex-cons who have completed their parole and are on probation could vote.

A study conducted by the Sentencing Project shows that over 40 percent of prisoners believe that incarceration permanently removes someone’s right to vote. About 60 percent of prisoners believe that they cannot vote while on probation on either.

Salamanca is advocating for the new legislation that would require the Department of Probation and Department of Corrections explain ex-offenders’ rights to them. Among the changes that the legislation proposes, probation officers would hand ex-offenders vote registration cards and explain their rights as soon as they complete parole. Though the probation department already follows this practice informally, the new law would mandate it.

Rodriguez said he hopes state officials  will follow leads set by Vermont and Maine, the only two states in the country that permit the currently incarcerated to vote. Three other states—- Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, and Rhode Island—-restore voting rights to anyone the instant they are released from prison.

Marilyn Scales, 53, described the feeling of shame and guilt many ex-offenders feel about struggling to reintegrate into society. Scales was released in 1997 after serving time for a drug charge. Since her release, she says, she has gone down the straight-and-narrow. She has received custody of her kids, gotten married, and has been drug free.

But even though she did everything she was supposed to do, she was told by her parole officer told her she couldn’t vote after she completed parole. Eventually she learned that she had been misinformed and she now wants to encourage other ex-offenders to know their voting rights, just as she came to do.

“If we don’t vote, then we can’t vote in people to advocate for us, and our community is already stigmatized as it is,” said Scales.

The last day for voters to register to vote in New York is October 14. In Longwood and Hunts Point, prospective voters should register to vote online or mail in their voter registration forms.