As New York City edges closer to its bellwether June primary, the Legal Aid Society claims the city’s prison system has done little so far to enforce a legally required mandate informing incarcerated people of their right to vote.
In a letter addressed to City Hall, the Department of Correction, and state Board of Elections, the Legal Aid Society claims jail officials have yet to distribute voter information packets for eligible inmates as part of a legally mandated initiative. State law dictates those convicted of a misdemeanor or in pre-trial custody are allowed to vote in an election. Detainees who register to vote through the initiative receive the voter information packet including an absentee application and important election dates, and can either mail their absentee ballot or have a DOC officer do it for them.
As the May 28th deadline to request an absentee ballot application for the June 22nd primary approaches, the Legal Aid Society insists the DOC has been derelict over informing the group’s clients of their rights.
“We recently learned from our incarcerated clients that DOC was not meeting its obligations to facilitate access to voting in NYC jails,” the letter sent Thursday reads. “The overwhelming majority of the clients we spoke with had not received voter registration information, they confirmed that there were no posters or signs with voter information, and that they had not received voter registration education.”
The letter—signed by more than 40 civic rights groups and elected leaders in support of the Legal Aid Society’s efforts—also seeks early voting to take place inside the city’s jails, including Rikers Island, the Manhattan Detention Complex, Brooklyn Detention Complex, and the Vernon C. Bain Center
Anthony Posado, a supervising attorney with the Legal Aid Society’s Community Justice Unit, which aids under-served communities, told Gothamist/WNYC that the city’s lax approach to voting rights is disenfranchising thousands of his group’s clients. It’s unclear how many of the 5,500 detained daily at each city jail complex are eligible to vote.
“Without any clear policies about whether voter education engagements are happening, whether the Department of Correction is working with the New York City Board of Elections to ensure that people who do register to vote are then receiving absentee ballots and that those ballots are in a timely manner being delivered to the New York City Board of Elections […] systematic disenfranchisement is taking place,” Posado said.
In a statement to Gothamist/WNYC, Peter Thorne, a spokesperson for DOC, said the agency “has gone above and beyond to facilitate voter engagement” at city jails.
“From voter registration drives, to hand-delivering voter registration forms, we’re committed to keeping people connected to their civic rights and involved in the communities they will one day reenter,” Thorne said.
Spokespersons for the Mayor’s Office, along with the city and state BOE offices did not respond to requests for comment.
A similar program was rolled out in 2018 by the de Blasio administration in partnership with the Legal Aid Society to help distribute and complete voter registration forms for detainees. Mayor Bill de Blasio said at the time that the program would remain in effect. In 2019, when the city’s jail system was at a much higher capacity pre-pandemic, 1,000 people had cast a ballot from inside a jail cell. The pandemic, however, forced DOC to hold off on the program, distributing the packets with mail-in ballots instead.
Results of the DOC’s latest outreach effort in September in preparation for the November general election have also not been disclosed, the Legal Aid Society said.
The DOC did not disclose those numbers to Gothamist/WNYC, but did say 663 people were successfully registered to vote for the June primary, despite the Board of Correction stating at a monthly meeting in September last year that there is an “overwhelming majority of people” eligible to vote in the city’s jail system. DOC told Gothamist/WNYC that it will carry out its legal obligation as it approaches the primary, incorporating an explainer on ranked-choice voting into the voter information packet, but did not provide a timeline.
The timing of the letter comes ahead of a busy election cycle for New York City, which include the race for mayor, the majority of the City Council, comptroller, public advocate and borough president. But they also include the race for Manhattan District Attorney, in which the majority of the candidates have taken a more holistic approach to prosecuting.
“All of the decisions made by these leaders will impact people who are incarcerated,” Posado said to Gothamist/WNYC.” And so, it was another reason why they also wanted to stay engaged.”
Voting rights have been in focus in recent days, following backlash against lawmakers in Georgia for passing several new measures critics say limit people’s ability to cast a ballot. It also comes amid a national effort by the Biden administration to ensure voting rights are not trampled on for federally detained inmates eligible to vote.
“New York State’s history of enforcing Jim Crow laws to prevent Black citizens from voting remains in effect for people in its jails, the overwhelming majority who are people of color,” read the letter. “Providing voting access and education to eligible voters who are in custody is a national priority of President Biden’s administration as demonstrated in his recently passed executive order.”