When Maria Perez filled out a registration form after being approached by a get-out-the-vote volunteer in downtown Brooklyn back in 2004, she had no idea if her criminal record barred her from ever voting again.
Three weeks later she received a card from the Board of Elections confirming it did. Because she was an ex-felon, it said, she wasn’t eligible.
For Perez, who had done a 180 with her life since throwing scalding hot oil on a woman who dissed her seven years earlier, learning that she would never be able to vote again was depressing and humiliating. “Like I don’t count as much,” she says.
But Perez, like unknown thousands of other ex-felons, did have the right to vote back then — though neither she nor, apparently, some election officials were aware of it. The law denying convicted felons the right to vote for life was changed in New York in 1976. But it took Perez nearly another four years before she found that out and she was able to restore her right to vote.
Under New York law, those convicted of felonies are eligible to vote if they are sentenced to probation or have finished their jail sentence and parole. In fact, those sentenced to misdemeanor crimes can vote while imprisoned through absentee ballots.
Given her past lifestyle, Perez was lucky that by the time she was locked up voting privileges were the only thing she had lost. Now 39, she readily admits that had she not gone to prison in 1997 for the hot oil attack, “I would probably be dead.”
“I was a high school dropout, a single parent (of three) who was committed to the streets in order to survive,” says Perez, now 39. She was selling drugs, “heroin, crack, cocaine, marijuana, whatever I got my hands on.”
When a woman came to her East New York apartment to beef with her babysitter and was disrespectful when Perez told her to settle it somewhere else, her street instincts took over. She grabbed the nearest dangerous object, the scalding hot oil she was cooking with, and threw it right in the woman’s face.
“I just reacted without taking time out to breathe,” she says now.
Sent off to Bedford Correctional Facility after pleading guilty in the assault case, at first prospects of her life behind bars didn’t look much rosier than the street life she had just been saved from.
“I was suicidal, had bad thoughts and it was a nightmare at the beginning,” she says. “But then I learned that you don’t let the time do you, you do the time.”
She earned her GED, took anger management and parenting classes and “in the end prison became something that helped me out a lot. It changed my life around,” she says.
She was released in January 2000 and within months had obtained a job at the Strand Book Store. She reunited with her three children and has kicked her old ways.
Though she has been living as a model citizen, she had come to believe that one fundamental right of citizenship was beyond her grasp, voting. That was until one day she was talking to her boss about the Presidential elections when he asked her if she was voting this year. “I told him, ‘unfortunately, I’m not allowed to vote.’” Trying to help her, the boss looked up the law online and came across the New York Civil Liberties Union’s education campaign on felon voting re-enfranchisement called “You Have the Right to Vote.” Advertisements from that campaign began appearing on the sides of city busses Monday, September 8th. Those eligible have until Oct. 10th to register to vote in this presidential election.
The number of New York felons who are eligible to vote but don’t is guesswork. Each year more than 100,000 people in New York state are convicted of felonies and about 12,000 felons finish parole annually. A study by the Sentencing Project noted that some 40 percent of prisoners believe that incarceration permanently bars them from voting. A spokesman at the city’s Board of Election said there is not a special form that identifies felons re-registering so they don’t have a count either.
“The numbers are tricky because we don’t technically know how many people are impacted,” said Jennifer Carnig, spokeswoman for the NYCLU. “The big problem is people can vote but they don’t think they can.”
Unlike in 2004, with an NYCLU videographer looking over Perez’s shoulder, she had no trouble re-registering to vote earlier this year.
“I’m looking forward to voting and hoping that my vote can make a difference and change things for the better,” she said.
When asked who she was voting for, Perez asked, “am I allowed to say?” When told it was up to her, she said, “I’m voting for Obama.”