Only two states allow felons to vote while in prison. It wasn’t long ago that Massachusetts did too.
Massachusetts inmates had the right to vote until 2000, when a ballot question passed in the state that made voting from prison illegal. Now, a grassroots campaign is trying to restore the right to vote to prisoners here via another ballot question.
The question of whether convicted felons should have voting rights has become a hot-button topic in the lead-up to the 2020 election. Nearly two-thirds of Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters consider restoring voting rights to felons important or very important, according to recent polling from CNN. Recently, democratic candidate Bernie Sanders took a strong position on prisoner voting rights in a CNN town hall, saying, "I do believe that even if they are in jail, they’re paying their price to society but that should not take away their inherent American right to participate in our democracy."
This debate in Massachusetts is not new — in fact, it goes back decades.
The modern era for voting rights for prisoners in Massachusetts started in 1973, "when some prisoner rights activists basically noticed that they had a right to vote and began a registration drive in MCI-Concord," said WGBH Legal Analyst Daniel Medwed, a professor of law and justice at Northeastern University.
The Massachusetts Department of Correction pushed back, arguing that while prisoners technically had a right to vote, they did not meet the requirements for voting via absentee ballot. In 1974, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court disagreed.
"The 70s was a period when the SJC was carving out greater rights for inmates," said Medwed. "Not just in the 1974 decision but a pair of 1978 decisions."
Those 1978 decisions confirmed prisoners' right to vote via absentee ballot, and clarified that inmates should be registered in the district where they last lived prior to incarceration, rather than where the prison is located. And so it was here in Massachusetts, until 1997.
"What really happened in 1997 is some inmates decided to form a political action committee," said Medwed.
The mission of this Political Action Committee was to gather and distribute educational materials about elected officials’ voting records on issues related to prisons, and to encourage prisoners and their family members to register to vote and participate in the electoral process.
This struck then-acting Governor Paul Cellucci as a bridge too far.
"Literally the day after they announced that they were getting ready to form this political action committee, the governor held a press conference form the Nashua Street Jail announcing his desire to form a constitutional amendment to take away their right to vote," said Medwed.
In the year 2000, Cellucci’s proposed change to the constitution was put to the masses via a ballot question. It passed overwhelmingly, with 60 percent of voters agreeing that incarcerated felons should no longer have a right to vote while in prison.
"I do believe when you commit a felony you do lose some freedoms," said State Sen. Barry Finegold of Andover. "And I do believe one of those freedoms is the right to vote."
Finegold is the current chair of Massachusetts' Joint Committee on Election Laws. That 17-person committee recently voted down a proposed amendment that would restore voting rights to incarcerated felons in the state.
"For me to tell parents that someone who raped and murdered their child that now we’re giving them the ability to vote just doesn’t add up," Finegold said. "I think that’s part of the reason why a lot of us have problems with it."
There are more than 8,000 convicted felons in state prisons — and likely a few thousand more held in county houses of correction. Felonies range in severity from rape and murder to serious financial and drug crimes. The state says 72 percent of felons are incarcerated for a violent offense. Finegold stresses that restoration of the voting rights for all felons upon release must be protected. And, he says, he might be open to proposals that would restore voting rights to non-violent felons while incarcerated.
"As a member and the chair of the committee I just have my position," he said. "If people want to go ahead with a ballot initiative, that’s their prerogative."
That’s exactly what people like Rachel Corey are trying to do.
"What we’re building toward is to collect 80,000+ signatures this fall, during pretty much a two-month period," she said.
Corey is a member of Mass POWER — a coalition working to restore the right to vote to prisoners here. Their grassroots effort is in the early stages, aiming to again change the state constitution via a ballot question in 2022.
"Through the political process is how — in this country — we have our voices heard," said Jarrett Drake, a Harvard PhD student and organizer for Mass POWER. He believes those voices should include incarcerated Americans. He said the prison system has become far too punitive, and likens stripping prisoners of voting rights to “temporarily suspending their humanity.”
"What does that actually do to rehabilitate them and prepare them for eventual return?" he asked. "Most people who are incarcerated will one day be released."
Whether or not this issue remains front-and-center as the 2020 election season heats up, you might be wise to keep your eyes on developments closer to home. No matter the future balance of power in Washington — or the occupant of the White House — the question of whether prisoners in this state should be allowed to vote could, once again, be put directly to you.
Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this piece incorrectly stated that inmates in Massachusetts had the right to vote until 1997. The ballot initiative revoking this right passed in 2000.