New York Governor Andrew Cuomo on Tuesday signed a law that will automatically restore voting rights for people upon being released from prison. 

“I strongly believe that restoring the right to vote to people who have paid their debt to society strengthens our democracy, promotes successful reentry into the community, and makes New York a safer and fairer place to live,” Cuomo said in a statement. 

The new law codifies a practice that has been in place in New York since Cuomo issued an executive order in 2018 allowing people on parole to have their voting rights restored with his approval. More than 67,000 New Yorkers released on parole had their voting rights restored, according to a Cuomo spokesperson. 

While Cuomo’s executive order has enabled him to restore voting rights for people on parole for the last three years, advocates for the new law say it was important to codify the practice, partly because it would remove the discretionary ability for any of his successors to deny voting rights to parolees. It also simplifies the process and ensures there’s no delay between a person’s release from prison and the restoration of the right to vote. 

“While the governor has been using his discretion in a commendable way for the last few years, Governor Cuomo or any future governor could change their mind at any time,” said Sean Morales-Doyle, deputy director of the Voting Rights and Elections Program at the Brennan Center for Justice. “We don’t think that the decision of who can vote and who can’t should be made by just one person.” 

New York Democratic Assembly Member Daniel O’Donnell, who in 2015 first wrote a bill that would restore rights to parolees, reiterated his argument for the measure.

“People who are on parole are living law-abiding lives, so why shouldn’t people who are living law-abiding lives have their rights as American citizens restored?” O’Donnell told CBS News. “Part of what parole is supposed to be is reintegrating people into our society and this is part of our society, the right to vote.”

Morales-Doyle agrees that it’s an important step for reestablishing the social fabric of a community.

“It tells people that they are welcome back in their communities, that they are seen as members of the community and encourages them to engage in one of the more pro-social acts,” Morales-Doyle said. 

Criminal disenfranchisement in New York dates back to the Jim Crow era, a 2010 Brennan Center report noted. After the 15th Amendment barred banning the right to vote based on race or color, 38 states enacted  criminal voting restrictions, many of which disenfranchised people beyond their release from prison. The law has had disproportionate impacts on voters of color. When Cuomo announced his executive order, Black and Hispanic New Yorkers accounted for 71% of the people disenfranchised because of their parole status. 

“We’ve [seen] the consequences of our criminal justice system when it comes to racial injustice. We’ve seen the consequences of excluding people from the system. I think this bill, even if it doesn’t mark a dramatic change in policy because of what the governor has been doing, it does send a really important message,” Morales-Doyle said. 

Earlier this year, Washington Governor Jay Inslee signed a bill that automatically restores voting rights for felons upon their release from incarceration. Eighteen other states, in addition to New York and Washington, do the same, according to the Brennan Center. Two states, Maine and Vermont, do not disenfranchise people with criminal convictions. The remaining states have various standards for when voting rights are restored. 

There has been a trend in recent years to restore felon voting rights, although some formerly incarcerated people face hurdles to get those rights restored.

In Virginia, the Legislature has taken initial steps to pass a constitutional amendment to restore voting rights for people convicted of a felony. Last year, Iowa Republican Governor Kim Reynolds signed an executive order in 2020 allowing those previously incarcerated to vote. New Jersey restored voting rights for about 80,000 people on probation or parole in 2019. 

Florida voters passed Amendment 4 in 2018, which restored voting rights to an estimated 1.4 million felons. But Republican Governor Ron DeSantis signed a law requiring them to first pay off all court fees and fines, which some critics have compared to a poll tax. The law faced a legal challenge but was upheld last year by a federal appeals court.