Gotham Gazette

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An Emergency Correction to City Voter Disenfranchisement

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Voting issues (photo: Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office)

Jim Crow remains alive and all too well in Georgia, Florida, and, yes, New York City, where the most diverse field to seek the mayor’s office is preparing for June’s primary. 

You know about news from Georgia, where Republicans -- citing false claims about fraud in the 2020 election -- have pushed through a law that, among other things, transfers some of the power to run Georgia elections from the secretary of state and local counties to a state board that conservatives will dominate. The law includes a ban on providing food and water to people waiting in line to vote.

You also likely know the challenges placed on Florida voters. In the run up to the 2020 elections, state Republicans stunted the state’s amendment granting voting rights to people with felony records. Republicans inserted a poll tax requirement that made those with felony records pay all fines and fees from their sentence before they could vote. 

However, you likely don’t know the challenges New York City voters have. In New York, a decidedly liberal city, people in pre-trial detention are free to vote. However, as the June 22 primary nears, featuring hundreds of candidates representing the city’s diversity for dozens of local offices, the New York Department of Correction is not meeting its obligations to voting access. The majority of people have not received voter registration information, there are no posters or signs with voter information, and people have not received voter registration education. The failure to take these steps increases the barriers to voting among this population.

The New York City Charter requires DOC to implement a program to assist individuals with voting. Because eligible people in New York City jails are required to vote by absentee ballot, they must rely on DOC staff to exercise their rights. More importantly, a loophole further disenfranchises some in city jails. The last day to postmark an application for a ballot this year is June 15 and the last day to postmark a ballot is June 22. This means eligible voters admitted into custody after June 15 and held through June 22 won't be able to vote.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, Deputy Mayor Phillip Thompson, Board of Correction Executive Director Margaret Egan, new Department of Correction Commissioner Vincent Schiraldi, and the Board of Elections must listen to the Legal Aid Society and ensure voters in New York City jails have prompt and secure ballot access without hindrance. To accomplish this, they must do the following:

Provide a report on what steps have been taken to implement the voting policy in New York City jails announced last year at the September Board of Correction meeting.

Show that the BOC works with the DOC and the Board of Elections to get "emergency" poll sites set up in every jail, and allow every eligible incarcerated person to register and vote by affidavit during early voting (June 12-20) or on primary election day (June 22).

Prove the BOC requests from the DOC and the Board of Elections to report the number of eligible voters in DOC custody, the number of registration forms received, the number of registration forms they considered valid, the number of absentee ballot applications received and accepted as valid, and the number of absentee ballots received and accepted as valid. 

There is a lot of confusion and misinformation surrounding access to voting. Ensuring appropriate accommodations for all voters — south and north of the Mason-Dixon Line, in jail or free — is the crucial first step in protecting a fundamental right to our democracy.

Ashish Prashar is the Global CMO at R/GA and a justice reform activist. He sits on the board of Exodus Transitional Community, Getting Out and Staying Out, Just Leadership, Leap Confronting Conflict and the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice. On Twitter @Ash_Prashar.

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