‘Are you registered to vote?’

A voter registration drive on 116th Street in Harlem focused on the 35,000 parolees in New York state who are newly eligible to vote as a result of an executive order issued in April by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Photo: Emily Barnard/Getting Out and Staying Out
Ahead of Aug. 19 primary deadline, voter registration drives heat up with new emphasis on incarcerated and formerly incarcerated individuals

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s surprise June House primary victory looms large over Democratic Party politics in 2018 — particularly in her native New York, where her campaign’s emphasis on engaging nonparticipants has helped energize efforts to register first-time voters.

The Bronx candidate has credited her success in defeating incumbent U.S. Rep. Joe Crowley in part to her upstart campaign’s focus on boosting turnout among nonvoters and voters who sat out past elections — a tactic party activists see as a path to triumph not just in low-turnout primary elections, where ballot totals are often separated by only a few thousand votes, but also in this November’s general elections.

“It’s not just red to blue,” Ocasio-Cortez said in her Aug. 4 keynote speech at the Netroots Nation conference in New Orleans. “It’s nonvoter to voter. That’s our swing voter.”

In New York City, much of the emphasis surrounding voter registration has concentrated on eligible voters in jail or on parole.

An Aug. 3 registration drive organized by Getting Out and Staying Out, a nonprofit that works to reduce recidivism among formerly incarcerated young men, targeted the 35,000 parolees in New York state who are newly eligible to vote as a result of an executive order issued in April by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

“Think about the impact that 35,000 New Yorkers could have,” Geoffrey Golia, GOSO’s director of clinical services, said as he shared registration information with passers-by outside the organization’s Harlem headquarters at 116th Street and Madison Avenue.

“There are folks who don’t always see why voting is important,” Golia said. “We want to engage them in a critical conversation about why voting and getting their voices out there could be helpful, not just for some theoretical policy, but for things that will help people in real life, like criminal justice reform and economic justice.”

Golia pointed to Ocasio-Cortez as a tangible example of the impact new voters can have. “She was able to unseat someone who was on the short list for House (of Representatives) leadership, and that was because she galvanized people who agreed with her views, but who were either not registered to vote or not exercising their right to vote,” he said.

Vastee Jackson, a 25-year-old who has participated in GOSO’s programs for three years, registered to vote for the first time at the event. “I was never really into voting,” Jackson said. “I never felt like it was real. But today I just was like, you know, it’s a new experience. Let me do something that I didn’t do before and just vote.”

Jackson is unsure if he will vote in the September primaries. “I might vote,” he said. “It’s more likely than less likely.”

The Legal Aid Society, which collaborated with GOSO in hosting the Harlem event, has also organized registration drives for incarcerated individuals at Rikers Island. Mayor Bill de Blasio, in partnership with the Legal Aid Society, announced a new initiative Aug. 7 to facilitate the delivery of voter registration forms and absentee ballots to eligible individuals detained at Rikers and other city jails. Previously, voting materials were processed with regular outgoing mail and subjected to security screening that sometimes resulted in delays and missed deadlines. The new program will bypass the jail mailing system to ensure timely delivery.

Voting rights have also become an issue in the gubernatorial Democratic primary race between Cuomo and challenger Cynthia Nixon. The Nixon campaign’s door-to-door canvassing operation has focused on registering new voters ahead of the Aug. 19 deadline to register to vote in the Sept. 13 primary, and Nixon has rolled out a platform to “end voter suppression in New York” by implementing early voting, automatic registration and other measures aimed at increasing turnout.

The Nixon camp has also targeted Cuomo for criticism over voter registration cards mailed out by the state that tout Cuomo’s record of “expanding access and opportunity for New Yorkers to register to vote.”

“Not only is this a gross abuse of state funds, but it’s untrue,” Nixon campaign spokesperson Lauren Hitt wrote in an emailed statement. “Cuomo makes it incredibly difficult for New Yorkers to register to vote and to cast their ballots. New York is just one of 13 states that doesn’t have early voting, and the deadline to change party registration for the upcoming primary election was a whopping 11 months prior on October 13, 2017 — locking out 3.6 million registered unaffiliated voters in New York.”

The Cuomo campaign did not respond to a request for comment.