Time to End a Shameful History of Disenfranchisement

The following testimony was submitted to the Joint Election Laws Committee.

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Chairman Finegold, Chairman Lawn, and Members of the Joint Election Laws Committee,

As an organization committed to strengthening our democracy and promoting racial and social justice in our Commonwealth, Progressive Massachusetts strongly supports S.12, a proposal for a legislative amendment to the Constitution relative to voting rights and urges swift action.

In recent years, states around the US have started to realize that the decades-long phenomenon of mass incarceration was a moral, economic, and public safety failure. It destroyed communities, strained budgets, and made us no safer.

The omnibus criminal justice reform legislation passed last session to widespread public support shows that the MA House and Senate understand this. But there is more work to do.

The right to vote is a cornerstone of democracy. However, our neighbors in Maine and Vermont are the only states in the US to grant incarcerated individuals this right.

Massachusetts once did. However, in the late 1990s, Governor Paul Cellucci and other state politicians pushed to restrict this right, putting forth a constitutional amendment to prevent those convicted of a felony from voting while incarcerated.

Let us 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. Although our state is only 7% Black, our prison population is 26% Black, and although our state is only 10% Latinx, our prison population is 24%.[1]

Moreover, the Supreme Court and US Congress have affirmed a variety of constitutional rights for prisoners. They have rights of religious freedom and a right to hold and express political opinions. As Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren once said, “Citizenship is not a right that expires upon misbehavior.”

Studies have repeatedly shown that maintaining a connection to the outside world is conducive to rehabilitation and reducing recidivism.[2] Allowing prisoners to participate in elections will strengthen their ties to the community, increase their sense of social responsibility, and facilitate their reintegration upon release.

We urge the committee to give this bill a favorable report.

 

[1] https://www.prisonpolicy.org/profiles/MA.html

[2] See, e.g., https://www.researchgate.net/publication/237298166_Inmate_Social_Ties_and_the_Transition_to_Society_Does_Visitation_Reduce_Recidivism.

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