By: Stephanie Perry

Recent criminal justice reforms have eased access to the ballot for tens of thousands of New Yorkers with criminal records post-release, but perennial state Senate and Assembly bills to stop the disenfranchisement of people with felony convictions in the first place remain stuck in state Election Law Committee purgatory. So, uninterrupted enfranchisement throughout a felony sentence is currently impossible.

Jailhouse voting may sound unexpected, but a Supreme Court decision protecting the right to the ballot for qualified, incarcerated voters arose from a case originating in upstate New York. In 1972, a group of detainees at the Monroe County Jail in Rochester brought a state case that ultimately resulted in the 1974 decision, O’Brien v. Skinner, that affirms the right of pretrial detainees and others in jail who are not otherwise disqualified from voting to access the ballot. At that time (and today), New York did not eliminate the voting eligibility of people convicted of misdemeanors. Of course, people serving short sentences and those awaiting trial in jail could not easily appear at their polling places to vote.

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