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NYC advocates call for Council hearing on jail detainees’ undercounted votes

NEW YORK — People held in New York City jails continue to have trouble getting their votes counted, according to a coalition of groups pressing the city for improvements.

With Presidential Primary Day on Tuesday, the Vote in NYC Jails Coalition sent a letter to the City Council calling for a hearing over the fact that many fewer votes cast from the jails are counted compared to absentee ballots overall. The coalition includes public defender groups, activists and elected officials.

“The BOE and DOC have an obligation to effectively facilitate a system that ensures every individual housed in city jails who is eligible to vote has the unfettered opportunity to cast their ballot,” said Rigodis Appling, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Society which is part of the coalition.

People being held pre-trial or severing a sentence for a misdemeanor conviction are still legally eligible to vote, the coalition said. But each step in the process, from registering to vote, learning about candidates and actually voting, is rendered more difficult in the jails.

The coalition previously sent a letter Feb. 13 to the city claiming that just 47% or 106 of 227 ballots filled out by detainees were counted — a rate much lower than the 73% of absentee ballots counted statewide.

In the June 2023 election alone, just 32 of the 74 votes cast in the jails, or 43%, were counted, the letter said. That percentage is far lower than the 98% of absentee ballots counted statewide.

The Board of Elections has yet to provide an explanation for the undercounting of ballots from behind bars, the Feb. 13 letter says.

As of Monday, the Board of Elections had yet to respond to the Feb. 13 letter. The coalition plans to rally outside Board of Elections offices in lower Manhattan on Tuesday.

Correction Department Spokeswoman Annais Morales said the department is limited in how much oversight it can provide over the process. Only the Board of Elections, for example, can inspect ballots.

“The notion that the department is suppressing any individual’s vote is absurd. Dedicated DOC staff work year-round on civic engagement and collaborate closely with volunteers to educate people in custody about voting, provide non-partisan information, and assist with filling out voter registration forms,'” Morales said.

“The department cannot confirm what is on an individual ballot filled out by a person in custody.”

The group also wants the Correction Department to contribute more staff to assisting detainees in registering voters and sending ballots.

The Board of Elections should set up the same system in Rikers that assists people in nursing homes to vote, including sending election inspectors to the jails, the letter argues.

On Tuesday, votes will select candidates in their party for U.S. President. Joe Biden, a Democrat, and former President Donald Trump, a Republican, are the front-runners.

Spokespeople for Elections and Correction did not immediately reply to a request for comment.