My First Vote

Before I went to prison at the age of 25, I didn’t vote because I didn’t care; addiction took up most of my time. After I got out at the age of 35, I couldn’t vote because of the New York State law disenfranchising those on parole. With five years of post-release supervision to go after my release, I wouldn’t cast a ballot until 2019.

Until April of this year, that is. Governor Cuomo wasn’t able to change the law prohibiting people like me from voting, not with a Republican senate opposing him. But he did find a way to allow New York state’s 35,000 men and women on parole to cast a ballot. By Executive Order, he issued all of us with a very limited pardon. I got mine in June.

I’m not actually pardoned; my record isn’t expunged, I can’t own a firearm and the limitations of parole preventing me from having a drink or being outside past 9 pm still apply. This makes sense; in his first two years in office, Cuomo didn’t issue any actual pardons, breaking the tradition of a handful of compassionate clemencies granted every Christmas. But he changed his tune with the rise of Cynthia Nixon and a challenge to his third term in office, handing out 35,000 ‘pardons’ after a few years of none. Thanks to this, now I can cast a vote.

From the moment Cuomo proposed the change to a shocked legislature until he announced his Executive Order at a function where he was introduced by Al Sharpton himself, the move was criticized as a blatant ploy for Democratic votes. Critics noted that going around the procedure for changing the law in this way not only subverted the process of representative government, but was motivated by an assumption that the 35,000 additional voters added to the realm of possibility would do what the Governor’s party wanted. New York state’s prison population is 82% minority, while the state as a whole is 57% white, meaning the people affected were four times likelier to be black or Hispanic than the demographic breakdown of all possible New York voters would predict. Of course, ‘not all’; I’m a white male on parole. And while the ability to vote is something less than exciting to many of my peers, as far as the conversation in the waiting rooms goes, it is to me.

I went to prison when Bush was in office. As my thinking cleared up and I read the ten magazines I subscribed to, I realized that I wished I had voted against him. When Obama was elected, it was a very interesting time in Maximum Security. I was quite pleased, as were most of the prisoners. But the cops were furious, and ran around screaming that we all had to turn our radios down. By his second election, there was less fanfare, and by 2016 I was out.

To my shame, I must admit that it was a relief to not be legally allowed to vote in that election. I had always considered myself a Democrat and personally found Trump to be questionable, but the extreme end of the Leftist spectrum had taken over my party and made it easy to understand why centrists would veer Right despite Clinton’s competency. The law made it easy for me not to make the decision.

I no longer have that excuse. As Cuomo has gone through the trouble of giving me a pardon to get me to vote, I feel I should. However, all 35,000 of us so recently put in this position should be profoundly troubled by why we are in it. It certainly does appear that our votes have been bought by a process that subverted the legislature and opposition to this development. Do we owe the Democratic Party our vote for this right?

I am certainly grateful for it, and intend to use it. But I cannot factor in the effort Governor Cuomo went through to achieve this. Either it is right for parolees to be able to vote or it isn’t; New York joins about a third of US states in now allowing those on parole to vote. I don’t think all that many of us 35,000 will vote, as an interest in politics did not strike me as a common trait in prison. But those of us that will vote are likely to be independent thinkers, not beholden to either Party and definitely not for sale. As a result, Cuomo might not get exactly what he expected from his new voters next week. My first vote will be exactly that; mine.