MA legislators just voted again to disenfranchise people in prison. And the vote wasn't even public.


MAY 3, 2019 Joint statement from Act on Mass, Progressive Massachusetts, and the Emancipation Initiative

Mass. legislature rejects voting rights for the incarcerated

As the national discourse around the question of restoring voting rights for those incarcerated heated up, the Massachusetts legislature also quietly took up the issue.  The Joint Committee on Election Laws voted on Thursday April 25th to reject a constitutional amendment to restore voting rights for the incarcerated.

Incarcerated people in Massachusetts weren’t always disenfranchised, and the 1974 Supreme Judicial Court case Evers v. Davoren ruled that citizens incarcerated in Massachusetts must be given equal access to absentee ballots to vote.  It wasn’t until 2001 that Massachusetts disenfranchised those incarcerated for felonies, after the Massachusetts legislature initiated a process to amend the State Constitution to take away their voting rights while in prison. The process required two votes of the legislature before it could advance to a ballot question. A Republican filed the original bill, but Democrats were more than happy to go along with it judging by the overwhelming vote counts in favor: the first vote in 1998 was 155-34, and the second vote in 2000 was 144-45.

Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley pointed out that it wasn’t until prisoners at MCI Norfolk started to organize a political action committee in 1997 to organize for better conditions through electoral pressure, that our State government leapt into action to disenfranchise them.  “People who are incarcerated are closest to the problem and therefore closest to the solution. In order to have meaningful criminal justice reform in this state, we must ensure that those most impacted have a seat at the table. Returning the right to vote to people who are incarcerated on felony convictions is that first foundational step,” said Rachel Corey, an organizer with the Emancipation Initiative. 

Certain elected officials have publicly stated they voted against this action, including Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa of Northampton and Senator Jamie Eldridge of Acton.  But no roll call vote for the 17-person committee was available at time of this release. Act On Mass has reached out to every committee member inquiring how they voted and will provide updates as they learn more. 

“The committee doubled down on the legislature’s decision to disenfranchise the incarcerated last week. And we don’t know how our elected officials voted, or even how close the vote was.  Democracy can’t function if voters don’t know how their representatives vote, and advocates can’t even make progress on lobbying the members of the committee if they don’t know who agrees with them and who disagrees with them,” said Matthew Miller, co-founder of Act on Mass, a group that advocates for progressive policies and transparency on Beacon Hill.

The legislature considered a proposal earlier this year to change its rules so that all committee votes are published online, but the proposal did not make it into the joint rules of the legislature.

"We are very disappointed that the Joint Election Laws Committee chose not to take this important step in strengthening our democracy and the hold of mass incarceration on our policymaking. In last year's criminal justice reform bill, the Legislature expressed an interest in focusing on rehabilitation. Allowing prisoners to participate in elections would strengthen their ties to the community, increase their sense of social responsibility, and facilitate their reintegration upon release,” said Jonathan Cohn, Chair of the Issues Committee at Progressive Massachusetts. “Let’s be clear. Given the inequities in our criminal justice system, this is part and parcel of our country’s shameful history of trying to disenfranchise minority voters.” ########################

Act on Mass has contacted every member of the Joint Committee on Election Laws to ask them to share their vote on this issue. As of this writing, the following legislators have responded:

  • Senator Barry Finegold (voted AGAINST amendment to re-enfranchise the incarcerated)

  • Senator Jamie Eldridge (voted FOR amendment)

  • Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz (voted FOR amendment)

  • Representative Russell Holmes (voted FOR amendment)

  • Representative Lindsay Sábados (voted FOR amendment)

  • Senator Ryan Fattman (voted AGAINST) amendmen

We are awaiting a response from:

  • Senator Brendan Crighton (Lynn)

  • Senator Edward Kennedy (Lowell)

  • Representative John Lawn (Watertown)

  • Representative Bill Driscoll (Milton)

  • Representative Tricia Farley-Bouvier (Pittsfield)

  • Representative Alan Silvia (Fall River)

  • Representative Steven Ultrino (Malden)

  • Representative Dan Carey (Easthampton)

  • Representative Kathleen LaNatra (Kingston)

  • Representative Nicholas Boldyga (Southwick)

  • Representative Marc Lombardo (Billerica)

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