Amidst GOP Outrage, Advocates Say There's Nothing Controversial About Restoring the Vote to Parolees
by DARIEN LAMEN
(ROCHESTER NY)--The Monroe County GOP and local right-wing commentators were busy fanning the flames of racist outrage in Rochester last week.
The allegations read like a greatest hits of Republican fear-mongering tactics--alleged voter fraud, racial integration of the suburbs, a system gone soft on crime amidst a wave of "anti-police" sentiment--all as residents geared up for early voting.
During a press conference last Thursday, local Republican Party Chair Bill Napier claimed that a former Black militant who recently moved to suburban Rochester broke the law by submitting a voter registration form shortly after he was released from prison on October 7th.
"It raises the question, who else is in the database who isn't entitled to vote?" Napier said.
Local media ran with the story and the GOP's framing. WHAM went with the sensationalizing headline: "GOP calls for investigation after convicted cop killer registers to vote."
There's nothing new about local Republican Party operatives using racism and controversy to rile up their shrinking base during election season. Or about mainstream media using clickbait headlines to drive digital traffic.
But for the man at the center of the GOP-generated controversy, the stakes could not be higher.
Jalil Abdul Muntaqim was released from state prison in early October, just two weeks shy of his 69th birthday. He had been incarcerated for nearly 50 years.
Muntaqim entered the U.S. carceral system at the age of 19. At the time, Muntaqim was active in the Black Liberation Army, the organization of which Assata Shakur is perhaps the most celebrated former member. Muntaqim was convicted alongside two co-defendants in the 1971 killing of two NYC police officers--one white, one Black. Muntaqim was sentenced to 25 years to life.
During the half century he spent in the prison system, Muntaqim earned two college degrees, vocational certificates, and commendations from prison officials for helping to calm prison uprisings, according to a 2019 New Yorker article.
When Muntaqim first came up for parole in 2002, law enforcement organizations led by the NYPD's police union began waging campaigns against his release. Those campaigns have relied heavily on statements from the family of Joseph Piangentini, the white police officer killed during the 1971 incident. Less frequently mentioned by the media is the fact that Waverly Jones Jr., the son of the Black police officer killed in the incident, has openly and actively supported Muntaqim’s parole, citing the racial and political context of the 1960s and 70s.
Advocates say there were likely many factors involved in the NYS Parole Board's decision to grant Muntaqim parole this year. Among them are not only his achievements, but also growing public pressure led by activists and intellectuals including Angela Davis, Michelle Alexander, and Cornel West, as well as the ongoing statewide push to release aging people from prison (especially in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic).
But if Muntaqim's supporters had hoped the Rochester area might provide a safe and supportive environment for him to quietly continue his life, it seems as though the local GOP is eager to keep up the public campaign against him. They have called for Republican District Attorney Sandra Doorley to investigate, prosecute, and send Muntaqim back to prison for allegedly registering to vote. The DA says she's looking into it.
Incarceration as voter suppression
If Muntaqim were living in a different state, he might have been well within his rights to register to vote. In fact, people in Maine, Vermont, and Washington D.C. are eligible to vote from prison, even with felony convictions.
Under New York State law, however, people convicted of a felony are disenfranchised. They regain that right when they complete their maximum sentence, or when they are discharged from parole.
People who are jailed on misdemeanors or while awaiting trial in New York State do not lose the right to vote. But in practice, they have had to fight to exercise it. In 1972, for example, 72 people held in the Monroe County Jail filed suit against the Sheriff for refusing to provide them absentee ballots and failing to provide mobile polling or transportation to the polls. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in their favor, calling the denial of absentee ballots "tantamount to deprivation of the franchise itself."
Civil rights and prison reform advocates note that the disenfranchisement of currently and formerly incarcerated people disproportionately impacts people of color.
In New York State, for example, about 15% of residents are Black, compared with roughly 43% of people in jail and 48% of people in prison. According to data compiled by the Vera Institute of Justice, New York State had the 4th highest incarceration rate in the country in 2018, with over 47,000 people in the New York prison system.
When scaled up to a national level, advocates say the system of U.S. mass incarceration amounts to massive voter suppression.
Rights and reintegration
Advocates say restoring the right to vote is an important part of a restorative approach to reintegration.
"Being able to vote not only gives you a voice in the policies and the laws that are being passed, but as a returning citizen back to your community, it gives you a stake in your own community," says Victor Pate, a long-time organizer and prison reform advocate, who is formerly incarcerated himself.
Pate currently works in New York City as statewide organizer for the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement. But this is hardly his first campaign.
In 2017, Pate participated in the statewide push to restore voting rights to people on parole. The following year, Governor Cuomo issued an executive order making it possible for them to vote with a conditional pardon from the governor.
"The right to vote is fundamental and it is unconscionable to deny that basic right of citizenship to New Yorkers who have paid their debt to society," Cuomo said at the time. "Restoring a voice to men and women reentering their communities will strengthen our democracy, as well as the reentry process, which in-turn will help reduce recidivism."
According to a NYS Department of Corrections database, Governor Cuomo has not restored Muntaqim's voting rights.
Muntaqim was released two days before the October 9th deadline to register, leaving little chance of the state bureaucracy processing a pardon in time for him to participate in this year's election in any case.
It's uncertain whether the governor would have rushed to issue a conditional pardon in the highly-politicized matter, although notably, Cuomo has restored the voting rights of Herman Bell, the only other surviving co-defendant in the case. Bell was released on parole in 2018.
"Change this miserable system"
If Muntaqim had been cleared to vote in this year's general election, it would probably be the 69-year-old's first time casting a ballot. Muntaqim was arrested in August of 1971 when he was only 19. The 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which lowered New York State's voting age from 21 to 18, was ratified that same summer on July 1, 1971.
Muntaqim has been understandably quiet in the face of the recent GOP-generated controversy surrounding his voting rights.
In the first public statement on the matter since last Thursday's GOP press conference, Muntaqim's lawyer Nora Carroll told the Democrat and Chronicle this week that the calls to prosecute her client for voter fraud "are politically-motivated and baseless."
"Jalil did nothing wrong," Carroll said. "The facts will show that there was no voter fraud or even an attempt to commit voter fraud."
When asked what he thinks is at the root of the controversy, Victor Pate says, "I believe that they don't want people who have seen the worst of our system to be a part of changing the system. Because we know from being directly impacted what type of policies--especially as you talk about prisons and jails and criminal justice--should be passed to make it more transformative, more restorative, and more equitable," Pate says.
"They don't want to hear from us because we could change this miserable system. It's as simple as that."
DARIEN LAMEN is news director/producer for Reclaiming the Narrative. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.