Massachusetts: Lawmakers consider restoring voting rights, but organizers are not waiting
Massachusetts moved away from universal suffrage in 2000, stripping incarcerated individuals of their right to vote through a constitutional amendment. Nearly two decades later, organizers inside and outside state prisons are working for the state’s now-disenfranchised residents to have a say in the electoral process.
The Emancipation Initiative, a group that advocates restoring suffrage to all people in prison, has been running a project called #DonateYourVote since 2016. The idea is to pair an incarcerated person and a free person who commits to voting according to his or her disenfranchised partner’s preferences. More than 140 such pairs formed in the 2018 elections, according to project organizers.
In January, Senator Adam Hinds introduced a proposed constitutional amendment that would restore incarcerated individuals’ voting rights. “It’s scary to me that the ability to have a voice in a democracy and the laws that impact the democracy can be removed,” he told me.
If this measure passes, Massachusetts would repeal the practice of barring people from voting because of a felony conviction. The proposal has a long road ahead, though, since it would need to be adopted by lawmakers in two separate legislative sessions and then by voters, which could not occur before 2022 at the earliest, and a regular bill must also pass.
Neighboring Maine and Vermont already have no such disenfranchisement, and Massachusetts was like those states until Republican Governor Paul Cellucci and other state politicians pushed for restrictions in an era known for its tough-on-crime politics and harsh sentencing schemes. In 1997, a group incarcerated at the Norfolk state prison attempted to create a political action committee that would spread information about elected officials’ positions on criminal justice issues, encourage people to vote while in prison, and change the state’s carceral policies. “Our whole point now is to make prisoners understand that we can make changes by using the vote,” Joe Labriola, a member of that group, said at the time. “We have the ability to move prisons in a new direction.” In response, Cellucci proposed stripping incarcerated people of their political rights. He issued an executive order banning certain organizing activities within prisons and he targeted their vote, too. “It’s outrageous that these prisoners have these voting rights,” he said. “We should be thinking about the victims.”
The Democratic-run legislature then twice passed a constitutional amendment to bar people convicted of a felony from voting while incarcerated. The amendment was placed on the ballot in November 2000. State voters approved it by a large majority.
Senator Pat Jehlen, who opposed this measure at the time, recalled a desire to block political activism when I asked her what had spurred its adoption. “It really was that there were people in some of the prisons that were organizing,” she told me. “There was that, and there was the argument which I don’t believe was true that they would overwhelm the local community” by all registering in the place they were incarcerated, she added. Legislative debates also bear the trace of some politicians’ hostility toward anything short of strict custodial control. “We decide when they get up and when they go to bed,” Representative Francis Marini said of incarcerated people during the 2000 convention according to transcripts posted online by the Emancipation Initiative. “We won’t let these people run their own life. They should not be allowed to run ours.”
Jehlen added that she had heard little about this issue since 2000, but that much is changing—in Massachusetts and elsewhere in the country.
Bills that altogether abolish felony disenfranchisement have been introduced in at least six states in current legislative sessions, and a legislative committee advanced one such bill in New Mexico in January. Last week, 20 national civil rights organizations sent a letter to New Mexico’s legislature in support of ending felony disenfranchisement.
“To have this network of folks who are also working hard on this issue is really exciting,” said Rachel Corey, an organizer with the Emancipation Initiative. “To see this energy come up in different parts of the country is like, ‘OK, we’re not on this island alone.’” She added, “Let’s move to the next level and restore the right to vote to anyone who is impacted by the criminal justice system.”
The Emancipation Initiative has been organizing Bay Staters inside and outside prisons around this goal. Derrick Washington, who is serving a life sentence without parole, founded the organization in 2012 while incarcerated. He said he has focused on suffrage ever since noticing that the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, makes an exception for punishment of a crime. “It opened my eyes to the reality of my situation,” he said on the phone. “I was a 21st-century slave to a system that is not catering to me or to anyone from the neighborhood that I came from.”
“I can’t impact the people who have designed the environments I’m detained in or are designing the policies that impact me,” he added. “In order to change the fabric of my situation, I would need to have a voice and reshape my environment with the vote. … You have a whole pariah class that are excluded from the process, yet those people are most affected by the laws that are put in place by legislators.”
Today this exclusion disproportionately impacts communities of color. According to a report released by the Sentencing Project, 26 percent of the people that Massachusetts disenfranchised as of 2016 were Black, even though only 7 percent of the state’s voting-age population was Black. A separate Sentencing Project report found that Massachusetts had the country’s largest inequality between the incarceration rates of Hispanics and whites—measures that are tied with each group’s disenfranchisement rate. Outcomes experienced in the criminal justice system inform these disparities. One study of Massachusetts conducted by the Council of State Governments in 2016 found that, among individuals who were convicted, a higher share of Black and Hispanic defendants than white ones received a sentence that included incarceration—as opposed to other forms of punishment that do not induce disenfranchisement. The study did not isolate type of offenses for which people were convicted.
“When you walk through what we’re seeing in the disproportionate arrests of African Americans and how this is targeting people of color in prison, it feels that the original racialized motivation is still what is keeping this in place,” said Hinds, the sponsor of the proposed amendment. Hinds traced the country’s present disenfranchisement statutes to their spread in the decades after African American men secured the right to vote. He called on the state to be “meticulous and deliberate in dismantling forms of discrimination” and to reject “laws that had nefarious intent.”
You can read the rest of this article, including more on #DonateYourVote and on the current positions of lawmakers who voted on disenfranchisement in 2000, in its full version here.