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DOC clarifies rules for absentee ballots, considers offer of voter registration volunteers

Sophia Schmidt
Delaware Public Media

Delaware’s Department of Correction met with civil liberties advocates last week to clarify plans for enabling people in pre-trial custody to vote this fall.

State Rep. Eric Morrison organized the meeting between DOC representatives, advocates and Elections Commissioner Anthony Albence last week to discuss concerns over a new DOC policy covering physical mail at the Vaughn Correctional Facility in Smyrna.

The policy redirects physical mail to a company in Nevada for photocopying, which DOC says can reduce the flow of contraband into its facilities.

But the New York-based Prisoners’ Legal Advocacy Network and the ACLU of Delaware noted the policy didn’t specifically exempt ballots from the new policy, though it did broadly exempt "official mail."

ACLU of Delaware Legal Director Dwayne Bensing says that could prevent people in pretrial custody at Vaughn from receiving absentee ballots, because a photocopy of a ballot is not valid.

"We’re concerned that there might be any policy within these prison facilities that unduly burdens eligible voters’ access to the ballot," he said. "And many people in custody have a constitutional right to vote, particularly in pretrial custody."

At last week’s meeting, DOC clarified that all Department of Elections mail will be exempt from the physical mail policy.

Morrison welcomed the clarification but noted that voting access policies may not be well-known by mailroom staff and people in custody.

“We pointed out to the DOC that what they think is happening is not what we hear is happening, from inmates and also from DOC employees," he said.

A DOC spokesman says the department is working with legal counsel and the Department of Elections to prepare training for mailroom staff on how to handle election mail. He also noted that prison staff have placed voter information fliers in pretrial units.

According to a spokesperson for the Prisoners’ Legal Advocacy Network, those fliers will need to be corrected to reflect Delaware’s new same-day voter registration law; they added that mailroom staff may need to be trained not to treat ballot return envelopes as contraband, given that mailrooms generally discard return envelopes.

The Prisoners Legal Advocacy Network also offered to provide volunteers to help people in custody register to vote and request absentee ballots. A spokesperson for the organization noted that their volunteer registrars would also be able to carry registration and absentee ballot request forms in and out of prisons, reducing the risk of mail delays. The DOC is still considering that offer.

Meanwhile, DOC Commissioner Monroe Hudson told Delaware's Council on Corrections that his agency is considering expanding the physical mail policy to other prisons, which the department says is a response to an increase in drug contraband entering its facilities by mail.

Paul Kiefer comes to Delaware from Seattle, where he covered policing, prisons and public safety for the local news site PubliCola.