By VIVIAN WANG
ALBANY – Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced Wednesday that he intends to restore voting rights to felons on parole, a move that could open the ballot box to more than 35,000 people.
The mechanism through which Cuomo plans to do so is unusual: He would consider pardons for all 35,000 people currently on parole in New York, as well as any new convicted felons who enter the parole system each month.
The move amounts to a legal sidestep of the state Legislature, where the Republican-controlled Senate has opposed many of Cuomo’s proposed criminal justice reforms. It does not change state law, which currently bars convicted felons from voting unless they are on probation or have completed parole.
Cuomo made the announcement at the National Action Network’s annual convention in New York City, where he was introduced by the group’s founder, the Rev. Al Sharpton. The governor said he had proposed legislation allowing parolees to vote, but that it had been rejected by the state senate.
“I’m unwilling to take no for an answer,” Cuomo said. “I’m going to make it law by executive order,” he added, continuing, “With active intervention, we can bend the arc toward justice.”
Richard Azzopardi, a spokesman for the governor, later clarified that Cuomo had proposed the idea during closed-door budget negotiations but that the idea was shot down; no bill was ever advanced.
Cuomo’s executive order would require the commissioner of the state’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision to submit a list of every felon currently on parole, as well as a list of those newly eligible for parole, beginning May 1, said Alphonso David, the governor’s counsel.
The commissioner would continue to submit an updated list each month, with each parolee “given consideration for a conditional pardon that will restore voting rights without undue delay,” according to the order.
Anyone on the list would be eligible for a pardon, David said, so long as law enforcement had not flagged any special concerns.
The pardon would not expunge a felon’s record nor would it restore other rights stripped from them, such as the right to serve on a jury. Azzopardi called the executive order a “narrow use of power.”
Cuomo’s plan would bring New York in line with 18 other states, as well as Washington, D.C., that allow parolees to vote, according to the governor’s office. Fourteen states automatically restore felons’ rights when they are paroled; two never remove them in the first place; and two – Iowa and Virginia – also use executive orders to issue pardons.
Civil-rights advocates hailed Cuomo’s decision as a long overdue step toward helping former inmates re-enter society.
“If we want to give people the opportunity to successfully live in our communities, we want to give them the opportunity to vote and be stakeholders,” Myrna Perez, director of the Voting Rights and Elections Project at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University, said.
But Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, cautioned that the state still had “a lot of work to do before we can call ourselves a paragon of democracy,” noting ongoing political gerrymandering and other stalled efforts to enact electoral reform.
Some of the signature accomplishments of Cuomo’s two terms in office have centered around criminal justice reform. In 2015, he issued an executive order appointing a special prosecutor to investigate police-related civilian deaths, and last year he signed “Raise the Age” legislation that ended the practice of treating 16- and 17-year-old defendants as adults in criminal court. New York had been one of two states that still tried juveniles as adults.
This year, Cuomo proposed ending cash bail for low-level offenses, a measure that was not included in the final state budget. The governor has also pushed for voting reform, including the introduction of early voting and same-day registration, neither of which was taken up by the Legislature, and neither of which he has the power to enact via executive order.
Republicans assailed the order as a gross overreach of executive authority. Ed Cox, the chairman of the state Republican Party, in a statement, called it an “outrageous power grab” designed to appeal to “radical primary voters.” A visibly angry Sen. John J. Flanagan, the Senate majority leader, said the move “circumvents the law.”
“I’m, like, in awe. I’m dumbfounded,” he said, adding, “This is a radical, and I mean radical, departure from the way legislation should be enacted.”
Cuomo’s primary opponent in his bid for a third term, Cynthia Nixon, has also made criminal justice reform a central plank of her campaign, calling for the legalization of recreational marijuana because of its disproportionate impact on the incarceration of black and Latino New Yorkers.
Nixon blasted Cuomo’s executive order as an insufficient, transparent response to her challenge from his left flank.
“For eight years, Cuomo governed like a Republican – handing control of our state to his ultrarich donors and the party of Trump. Now he’s scared of communities all across New York who want to replace him with a real Democrat,” she said in a statement, adding, “Voter suppression in New York should have ended eight years ago.”
But Cuomo’s aides dismissed the idea that the timing of the announcement – one day after a new poll showed Nixon closing the gap between herself and Cuomo, although he retains a commanding lead – had anything to do with Nixon’s candidacy.
“We’ve been killing ourselves for the past decade to advance the ball forward on criminal justice and voting rights issues,” David said. “And no one should suggest that because we’re in an election season, we’re doing this because of that.”
Sharpton, in introducing Cuomo, also seemed to hint at the scramble between Cuomo and Nixon to win over black voters – and seemed to take a swipe at Nixon for merely “talking about” being progressive, although he did not mention her by name.
“We want you to show your progress by what you do,” he said.
The issuance of 35,000 pardons at once would be remarkable for any governor, but it is particularly so for Cuomo, who, during his first two years in office, did not issue any pardons; by the end of his fifth year, he had issued eight. To date, he has issued 174 pardons, bolstered by more than 100 conditional pardons he issued in 2016 to people convicted of nonviolent crimes as minors.