Advocates call for reforms to aid inmate voting

Group says policies inconsistent across the state

AS COMMUNITIES ACROSS the state prepare for municipal elections on Tuesday, one group of would-be voters might be more inclined to cast ballots if the process were simpler. Thousands of inmates being held in state or county correctional facilities are eligible to vote, but bureaucratic confusion and inconsistent policies across different jurisdictions often stand in their way, according to prisoner rights advocates.

A report being released by the Emancipation Initiative, a group of community activists and students, calls for reforms to ensure voting access to all eligible inmates in the state.

“Protecting the rights of the most vulnerable members of society is essential to a functioning democracy,” says the report, “Overcoming Barriers that Prevent Eligible Incarcerated People from Voting in Massachusetts.” The group says its research on voting practices in Massachusetts correctional facilities revealed “structural barriers that prevent incarcerated voters from voting and the absence of a system to protect their franchise.”

As in nearly all states, people incarcerated for felonies in Massachusetts are barred from voting while behind bars. But those serving time for misdemeanor offenses or being held before trial are eligible to vote.

The new report on barriers to inmate voting comes amidst a broad rethinking of criminal justice policies here and nationally, with the pendulum swinging back toward a focus on rehabilitation and ways to divert offenders from incarceration after decades of tough-on-crime policies that swelled the US prison population.

Massachusetts enacted a sweeping criminal justice reform bill last year, and some reforms have enjoyed a rare bit of bipartisan support nationally, highlighted by President Trump’s signing of a federal reform bill last December.

Trying to draw inmates into civic life, even while they’re still physically separated from it, has now become part of the new approach in some places.

In June of last year, the Suffolk County House of Correction was the unusual site of a candidate forum, with inmates hearing from the contenders for the open Suffolk County district attorney’s seat.

Two years earlier, Suffolk and Middlesex county sheriffs allowed volunteers from the League of Women Voters into the houses of corrections to assist inmates with absentee voter applications.

“Populations that are already marginalized should not have the added penalty of disenfranchisement,” said Suffolk District Attorney Rachael Rollins, who won last year’s race, applauding efforts to help eligible inmates exercise their right to vote.

While a lot of the reform focus has been on reentry programs to better prepare offenders for success after their release in order to reduce high recidivism rates, Suffolk County Sheriff Steve Tompkins says engaging inmates in the voting process while still behind bars can play a role in those efforts.

“The majority of our detainees and inmates are from neighborhoods that fall within a five-mile radius of our facilities,” he said at the time of the 2016 voter initiative. “We want them to leave us as individuals who are better able to care for themselves and their families and make an active and positive role in their neighborhoods when they return.”

The legal issues surrounding inmate voting rights have made their way to the state’s highest court several times in recent years, and been the subject of one statewide ballot question that amended the Massachusetts Constitution.

In 1974, Supreme Judicial Court ruled that prisoners were entitled to vote by absentee ballot, and must have equal access to ballots. The Department of Correction had argued that inmates retained the right to vote, but could only do so while on furlough, when they could physically appear at a polling location.

The issue of where inmates can register to vote became a subject of dispute in 1976 when 300 men incarcerated at MCI-Concord tried to register to vote in the tony suburb. A Concord resident filed a complaint with the local election board challenging the inmates’ right to register there.

The case eventually landed before the SJC, which ruled in 1978 that prisoners generally must vote in the district where they lived prior to incarceration, but said inmates could register in the municipality where they’re being held if they can demonstrate they have “willingly established” residency there.

While the court cases solidified inmate voting rights, one high-profile effort served to curtail them. In 1997, during the height of the tough-on-crime era, Acting Gov. Paul Cellucci filed a constitutional amendment to prohibit people convicted of felonies from voting while incarcerated. “Criminals behind bars have no business deciding who should govern the law-abiding citizens of the Commonwealth,” Cellucci declared. Three years later, more than 60 percent of Massachusetts voters agreed, enacting an amendment making felons ineligible to vote while in state custody.

More than 5,000 inmates in Massachusetts correctional facilities are potentially eligible to vote. That figure represents about 10 percent of the roughly 9,000 Department of Correction inmates who are not being held on felony convictions, and, at a minimum, the roughly 4,500 inmates in county facilities who are being held prior to trial.

The new report says there is no consistent process in correctional facilities across the state’s 14 counties for voter registration or casting absentee ballots. The advocates also say sheriffs and town clerks have widely varying degrees of understanding of voting rights law, especially the 1998 SJC ruling allowing inmates to claim residency where they are confined.

The report cites an example from last year of clerks in Franklin County holding onto absentee ballot applications “for up to three weeks while they made residency determinations,” with applications then rejected just days before the absentee ballot deadline. That made it logistically impossible for prison voters to request an absentee ballot using a previous address in time for the election, says the report.

Emails provided to CommonWealth by Secretary of State William Galvin’s office document that the municipal clerk’s office in Greenfield rejected over a dozen ballot applications last fall from inmates who opted to use the jail as their place of residence.

The Greenfield clerk’s office did not reply to a request for comment.

Michelle Tassinari, general counsel in the election division of Galvin’s office, said the presumption from some town clerks is that inmate seeking absentee ballots are residents of their most recent address, rather than the jail facility.

“That is correct in many cases, however it not correct in all cases,” Tassinari wrote to the Greenfield clerk. “While domicile for voting purposes is more than what address the prisoner chooses to use, a prisoner may establish residency in your community if they can satisfy certain legal requirements even while incarcerated.”

Volunteers working on the report recently were able to enter correctional facilities in Essex, Franklin, Hampden, Middlesex, and Norfolk counties to assist inmates who signed up for information sessions on how to cast absentee ballots. The efforts yielded 52 absentee ballots submitted for the 2018 state primary, and 154 for the general election.

Researchers were unable to get access to jails in Barnstable, Hampshire, Plymouth, Suffolk, and Worcester counties, but officials in those jurisdictions all said they have a regular practice of notifying inmates of their right to vote. Four counties, Berkshire, Bristol, Dukes, and Nantucket, did not respond to requests for information, according to the report.

In state-run correctional facilities, the Department of Correction says its policy to have absentee ballot applications available in every corrections library.

The Emancipation Initiative activists are calling for several reforms, including county and state correctional officials letting inmates know whether they are eligible to vote and providing information on absentee ballot applications for those who are; tracking and publicly sharing data on inmate voting numbers; and mandatory training by the secretary of state’s office for city and town clerks on state law governing inmate voting rights.

The African American Coalition Committee at MCI-Norfolk in 2018. Fu Quan is third from the right in the bottom row. (Courtesy of Rachel Corey)

Some of those measures are addressed in legislation filed by Sen. Sonia Chang-Diaz and Rep. Russell Holmes. Their bill would also require that judges routinely inform defendants of their voting rights.

When people are getting incarcerated, they should “have clear guidelines of what their rights will be when they’re inside, and what they will be when they reenter,” said Chang-Diaz. The bill is not about “re-litigating whose done bad or how intentional it was,” she said, but rather is aimed at improving voter engagement potentially helping reduce recidivism.

Fu Quan, who is serving a life sentence at MCI-Norfolk for murder and therefore not eligible to vote, chairs an inmate group at the facility that helped draft the report and the proposed legislation. “We just want to organize the people who have the right,” he said. “No one’s come in to educate them on that.”

Alongside the effort to ensure currently eligible voters can cast ballots, there is also a proposal to reverse the 2000 ballot question that barred incarcerated felons from voting. Sen. Adam Hinds filed a bill earlier this year that would begin the process to amend the state constitution to strike the measure approved by voters nearly two decades ago.

Meet the Author

Sarah Betancourt

Reporter, CommonWealth

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

About Sarah Betancourt

Sarah Betancourt is a long-time Latina reporter in Massachusetts. Prior to joining Commonwealth, Sarah was a breaking news reporter for The Associated Press in Boston, and a correspondent with The Boston Globe and The Guardian. She has written about immigration, incarceration, and health policy for outlets like NBC, The Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism, and the New York Law Journal. Sarah has reported stories such as a national look at teacher shortages, how databases are used by police departments to procure information on immigrants, and uncovered the spread of an infectious disease in children at a family detention center. She has covered the State House, local and national politics, crime and general assignment.

Sarah received a 2018 Investigative Reporters and Editors Award for her role in the ProPublica/NPR story, “They Got Hurt at Work and Then They Got Deported,” which explored how Florida employers and insurance companies were getting out of paying workers compensation benefits by using a state law to ensure injured undocumented workers were arrested or deported. Sarah attended Emerson College for a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Communication, and Columbia University for a fellowship and Master’s degree with the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism.

That issue is likely to prove far more controversial than efforts to ease the path for non-felons to vote while serving time. In April, felon voting surfaced in a Democratic presidential debate when candidates were asked whether they would favor allowing felons such as Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev to vote while behind bars.

Bernie Sanders said every citizen should be able to vote, but other candidates hedged on the question or said felon voting bans should remain in place.