As prepared for delivery

Statement before the

New York City Council
Committee on Government Operations

Ben Kallos, Chairman


By:  Winette Saunders, Deputy Commissioner

NYC Department of Correction

October 1, 2015


Good Morning, Chairman Kallos and members of the Committee on Government Operations. My name is Winette Saunders. I am the Deputy Commissioner of Youthful Offender Programming at the New York City Department of Correction. I am testifying before you today to discuss the Department’s policy related to voter registration, absentee ballots, and specifically Intro 464, which would require the Department’s implementation and administration of a program for the distribution and submission of absentee ballot applications.

The New York City Department of Correction strongly advocates for all inmates to be educated on their right to vote and be given every opportunity to register and/or vote. To that end, the Department has worked diligently to ensure that all inmates are made aware of the effects, if any, of their incarceration on their right to vote, and the absentee ballot process that may be available.

Pursuant to Local Law 29 of 2000, the Department of Correction provides for the comprehensive distribution of voter registration materials to inmates, individuals visiting inmates, and Department staff. Voter registration forms, obtained from the NYC Board of Elections are offered in several languages, including English, Spanish, Chinese, and Korean. DOC uses a number of avenues to ensure department-wide availability of  voter registration information throughout the year, including posting informational fliers and posters and distributing voter applications in congregate areas, such as facility law libraries, social services areas, ministerial areas, barbershops, and visit areas. In addition, the Inmate Handbook, provided to each inmate upon entry into DOC custody, contains a section dedicated to the topic of voting. The section explains who may vote and the voter registration and absentee ballot process. The handbook also informs inmates how to obtain and mail back their voter registration forms and absentee ballot forms and/or applications.

The Department provides all materials year round in all facilities, including the Benjamin Ward Visit Center. In addition, voter rights awareness events are held before major general and primary elections (City and Federal), around national voter registration day, and during Voter Awareness month.
Voter rights awareness events are conducted in collaboration with partner agencies. During these events, inmates are able to submit voter registration cards and absentee ballot applications which are then delivered to the Board of Elections. These events are significant efforts, which is why we partner with outside groups. To effectively canvas all facilities requires considerable staffing and training. During the last election event, a group of eighty (80) volunteers and DOC staff were assigned within the ten (10) department facilities. Housing area by housing area, the group made announcements and assisted inmates as needed. Absentee ballot applications were widely distributed as part of these efforts. Furthermore, the Department issued teletypes,  which were read to staff at all roll calls, to inform all staff of the voting information, that applications and registration forms are placed in facility areas, and related application deadlines.

As I mentioned earlier, the Department certainly recognizes the critical importance of the right to vote and the need for everyone not only to be informed of their right to vote, but also to be provided with the means to do so. The Department has taken steps to ensure that inmates have access to voter information throughout the year and not simply leading up to an election.

Currently, the Department provides voter information throughout the year and makes special efforts to ensure inmate accessibility to voter registration forms, absentee ballot applications, and assistance completing such forms and applications prior to elections. This legislation would require the Department to provide such information and assistance within a set time frame and require that the Department, within five (5) days after receipt of an absentee ballot application or absentee ballot, transmit it to the Board of Elections. Currently, absentee ballot applications and absentee ballots are considered privileged mail, and are mailed by inmates in the same manner as they would any other piece of mail. We believe this procedure complies with the requirements of the bill and there would be no need to change these procedures.

The Department’s efforts to encourage voting are exemplary. DOC has served as a presenter at the NYC Campaign’s Finance Board’s annual Local Law 29 training that focuses on how to raise awareness of voting rights for NYC residents.  DOC has been selected because of the innovative and collaborative practices we utilize to raise awareness for this unique population.

Thank you for the opportunity to testify here today.  I am happy to answer any questions.