Legal Aid Society rallies for voter rights for incarcerated people in jails

A jail on Rikers Island
A jail on Rikers Island.
Photo by Dean Moses

The Legal Aid Society, a legal advocacy group in New York City, rallied outside of the state’s Board of Elections (BOE) building demanding a more accessible voting process for incarcerated people.

Advocates called for city officials to open at least one single voting location at Rikers Island, one of the city’s jails, or for in-person absentee voting to be established. 

Legal Aid claimed that under New York State law, “polling places for early voting shall be located so that voters in the county have access to adequate and equitable access,” and that people who are incarcerated and are denied access to equitable voting opportunities are being denied these rights.

“Our clients and all those incarcerated at Rikers who are eligible to vote – a whopping 90 percent of the local jail population – have the legal right to vote and must be granted early access to cast their ballots come election time,” said Anthony Posada, supervising attorney of the Community Justice Unit at The Legal Aid Society on Nov. 1. “By refusing to establish early voting locations at these facilities, the BOE is blatantly disenfranchising an entire population of eligible voters. We call on BOE to immediately open these voting sites to ensure that our clients have a role in democracy.”

New Yorkers being held in pre-trial detention, on parole or serving a city-related sentence are legally entitled to vote if they desire, but according to Legal Aid are being deprived of this right because the BOE has not yet established clear early voting plans.

Legal Aid and other advocacy groups also said that a lack of established voting plans in city jails is lowering the voting participation of communities of color, particularly Black and Brown communities. In NYC jails, 88% of the population is comprised of Black and Brown individuals.

“Our state laws maintain the right to vote for New Yorkers being held in custody, and the Board of Elections is duty-bound to uphold that sacred right,” said Cesar Z. Ruiz, a member of LatinoJustice PRLDEF. “The Board’s inaction and lack of urgency on this matter is unconscionable, especially given that huge racial disparities in who is involved in our criminal legal system means that current practices shut out hundreds of thousands of Black, and Latino voices from our democratic process.”

Formerly incarcerated individuals at the rally also emphasized the importance of access to voting while in jail.

“I am a committed voter – I take that right and responsibility seriously,” said Greg Williams, a member of the Freedom Agenda. “When I was sent to Rikers days before the 2020 election, I knew I still had the right to vote while I awaited my hearing, but I quickly saw there wasn’t actually any functional system for me to do that. The BOE needs to step in here to protect the rights of ALL eligible voters.”

Following the rally, a spokesperson from the DOC responded to an amNY request for comment regarding voting accessibility.

“We are proud of the work we’re doing to encourage voter engagement in our facilities,” the DOC spokesperson said. “From distributing voter registration forms and ballots, putting up flyers and signs, supplying voter materials in our Law Library and centralized locations, to educating individuals in our custody about their right to vote. We are dedicated to ensuring that individuals have an active voice in matters that affect our communities.”

Last update 11/2/2022 12:42 pm.