Incarcerated New Yorkers deserve their right to vote, Public Advocate Williams says

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New York Public Advocate Jumaane Williams speaks on the right to vote for those in jail April 15th.
Photo by Dean Moses

Public Advocate Jumaane Williams joined the Legal Aid Society in Lower Manhattan on Thursday afternoon in calling for greater voting access to incarcerated individuals.

The population in New York City jails has severely restricted voting access, according to Rigodis Appling, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society. Though they may have broken the law, many believe that the imprisoned have no less right to cast their vote as citizens — and both Williams and the Legal Aid Society want the incarcerated to have equal access to vote.

Currently, the felony disfranchisement law prevents those with a felony conviction from voting. However, there are those in jail who have not been convicted of a felony and still have the right to exercise their vote, though many may not be aware of it — or lack the resources to participate in an election.

Perhaps nobody is more aware of this more than Eileen Maher, who spent over a year in Rikers Island while she fought her case. During her time in jail, Maher said, the Legal Aid Society had a program that would come to the prison and provide those eligible with an opportunity to vote.

“Those of us who were not convicted or on parole or probation were allowed to vote. This opportunity comforted me at a time when jails’ sole purpose was to dehumanize individuals. The following year when I was in prison and on parole, I was unable to vote. I had no say on who represented me. I had no say on who my owner was for lack of a better phrase,” Maher said at Thursday’s press conference. “Not allowing individuals who are incarcerated in jail or prison, and those who are on parole and probation is representative of a slave owner mentality and exploits the 13th Amendment.” 

The 13th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, ratified in 1865, outlaws slavery or indentured servitude “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”

Rigodis Appling, an attorney with the Legal Aid Society. Photo by Dean Moses

Williams leant his voice to the cause, calling for those eligible to have easier accesses to their suffrage. He stated that many of those in jail have not been found guilty of a crime — and even then, the individuals who have been convicted should not be prevented from exercising their right.

“Very often when we talk about voter suppression, we leave out cities and places like New York City, but voter suppression is very real here as well in many different ways and one of those ways we see showing up in our city jails,” Williams said. “We have a way of trying to dehumanize people who are in our city jails, even though the vast majority of them have not been found guilty of anything.”

The public advocate also pointed out that many incarcerated people who are denied their voting rights are Black and Brown and come from low-income backgrounds. The denial serves to only further dehumanize them before they return to the community, he added.

According to the Department of Corrections (DOC), they believe they have a very strong voter outreach program, adding that in the coming weeks they will provide information packets in both Spanish and English for upcoming primaries, which is something they say they did for the June 2020 Primary Election. Within these packets are said to be voting eligibility criteria for the incarcerate individuals, deadlines, and how to complete and submit the forms, and more.  

“The Department has gone above and beyond to facilitate voter engagement in our facilities. 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,” said Deputy Commissioner of Public Information Peter Thorne.

DOC sources state that 663 completed voter registration forms were submitted on behalf of individuals in custody to the Board of Elections within the five boroughs last June.