In the run-up to the 2008 presidential election, 46-year-old John Molina—a self-described "political process junkie”—went all out. He attended rallies, put an Obama bumper sticker on his car and told all his neighbors to get out and vote.

"I'm one of those people that knocks on doors,"he says. "Don't complain to me about your neighborhood, about the garbage in your street, if you don't vote.”

But when November 4 came around, Molina didn't go to the polls. He wasn't allowed to. He was still on parole.

In New York State, anyone convicted of a felony and sentenced to time behind bars loses their right to vote while they're incarcerated, and for the duration of their parole. For years, civil and prisoner advocacy groups have fought to restore this right, on the argument that ex-offenders who are civically engaged are less likely to fall back into crime, and make for better citizens.

"I was disappointed. Of course I was elated that Obama won, but I was disappointed I couldn't be a part of the process,"Molina says.

He got out of prison in 2007, after serving eight years behind bars for armed robbery. After release, he worked hard to "reinvent"himself, he says. He got a job working for a nonprofit, went back to school for his bachelor's degree and started taking classes for a master's degree in public health at New York University. All the while, for the four years he was on parole, he couldn't cast a ballot.

"People are still not allowed to vote even though they're living the in the community, contributing to the community, sending their kids to local schools,"says Erika Wood, an associate professor at New York Law School.

Because a majority of those involved in the criminal justice system are people of color, advocates say the state's felony disenfranchisement law stifles the voice of minority communities in the political arena, and is reminiscent of voting laws during the Jim Crow era. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, nearly 80 percent of the approximately 100,000 people who have lost their right to vote under New York's law are African-American or Hispanic.

And while the majority of those behind bars can't actively participate in the political process, prisoners still carry serious political clout—even if they can't wield it. The state's prison population is the rope in a longtime tug-of-war between upstate and downstate lawmakers over where prisoners should be counted as residents in the re-drawing of legislative maps.

Because these maps are based on Census population numbers, the districts set by the legislature this year will stay in place for the next decade. Last month, state lawmakers struck a deal, in accordance with a state law passed in 2010, agreeing—for the first time—to count prisoners as residents of their home addresses for the purpose of redistricting, as opposed to counting them in the districts where they're incarcerated, as had been the practice for decades.

Civil rights and good-government groups have heralded the recent change as a landmark democratic boost to many New York City neighborhoods.

"The prison population is primarily made up of people of color, from low-income communities that have a lot of economic and social needs,"says Steve Carbó, of the advocacy group Demos.

"If their voice is being limited by parts of their community not being included, they have that much less political strength to get those needs meet.”

But while prisoners will be counted as residents closer to home under the new deal, neither they —nor parolees—will count as voters.

The chilling effect

Different states have different rules when it comes to letting ex-offenders vote. Some states, like Florida and Kentucky, permanently ban anyone with a felony conviction from voting, no matter how much time has passed since their offense, unless the government individually approves their rights be restored. Other states, like Maine and Vermont, let all prisoners vote, via an absentee ballot, even while they're still behind bars.

"New York's law is kind of in the middle,"says Wood.

Here, the law is different for different groups of offenders. Anyone with a felony conviction, whether on the local or federal level, who is sentenced to incarceration is barred from voting, for both their time behind bars and the duration of their parole. Those with a felony conviction who get probation instead of jail time, however, can still vote; so can anyone convicted of a misdemeanor, even if they're incarcerated.

Right before the 2008 election, the Department of Corrections and staff at Rikers Island recruited advocacy groups to launch a voter education campaign at the jail, where a majority of inmates are there on misdemeanor convictions or are still awaiting trial, and therefore still eligible to vote.

Wood and others say that the complexity of the New York's law creates confusion among formerly incarcerated residents and election workers alike, who might not understand the difference between probation and parole, or who think a misdemeanor charge can block them from the polls. That lack of clarity can keep some people from even trying to register, or to the state wrongly turning away someone who is, in fact, eligible.

"Our law here in New York State is sort of nuanced, and it's exactly that nuance that creates a chilling effect, if you will,"says Glenn Martin, Vice President of the Fortune Society, a nonprofit that helps people coming out of prison and jail re-enter society.

"Misinformation is huge,"he says. "The law itself disenfranchises any number of people, but I would argue that the chilling effect disenfranchises many, many more.”

Martin, who himself spent time behind bars, says he was wrongly told by his local Board of Elections that he couldn't register the first time he tried. A 2006 survey by the Brennan Center found that 24 of New York's 63 local election boards either answered incorrectly or did not know if an individual on probation was eligible to register to vote; a 2005 survey of residents with current or previous criminal justice involvement, by the Sentencing Project, found that nearly 30 percent of New York respondents thought that an arrest in their past was enough to keep them from ever voting again, or said they didn't know if that meant they were eligible.

Last year, the State Legislature passed a law that many hope will correct this trend, requiring criminal justice agencies to specifically notify those with a felony conviction of their voting rights as soon as they're eligible to vote again.