It’s time to restore felon voting rights

Ban is unhealthy vestige of discredited 'tough on crime' era

THE JOINT COMMITTEE on Election Laws recently voted a bill favorably out of committee that would expand democracy and signal a tide change in how Massachusetts weighs punishment, rehabilitation, and dignity in the criminal legal system. The bill, S.8/H. 26, filed by Sen. Liz Miranda and Rep. Erika Uyterhoeven, would return the right to vote to all individuals currently serving a prison sentence in the Commonwealth.Massachusetts maintained the right to vote for all those incarcerated until 2000 when — at the zenith of mass incarceration — a constitutional ballot question and legislation rescinded that right for those serving felony convictions. The ballot question was put forth by then-Republican Gov. Paul Cellucci to retaliate against incarcerated individuals in MCI-Norfolk for organizing a voter registration drive and political action committee.While voters in 2000 responded to the era’s “tough on crime” rhetoric, which resulted in myriad sweeping and deleterious policy changes, Massachusetts residents now support the Election Laws Committee’s decision to seriously reconsider disenfranchisement policy. According to new University of Massachusetts Amherst/WCVB polling, Massachusetts residents support restoring voting rights to those currently incarcerated by 9 percentage points (49 percent to 40 percent). That support extends across all racial groups, gender, income levels, and nearly all categories of educational attainment. Notably, over 70 percent of 18-29 year-olds — those who were too young to cast a ballot in 2000 — approve of the restoration of voting rights behind the wall. The recent vote of the election laws committee, therefore, not only reflects sound leadership — particularly by its co-chairs, Sen. John Keenan and Rep. Dan Ryan — but also the policy preferences of Massachusetts residents, and crucially, the strong preference of communities of color. These communities, who are disproportionately targeted by prison disenfranchisement, support ending the policy by an overwhelming 23 percentage points.Last month, a range of advocates testified before the Committee in a hearing that was significant in its own right: For the first time (to our knowledge) in Massachusetts history, incarcerated people were able to call in to give testimony directly during a legislative hearing. For example, Corey ‘Al-Ameen’ Patterson, now former chairman of the African American Coalition Committee (AACC), based in MCI-Norfolk, and Democracy Behind Bars (DBBC) co-chair, highlighted the importance of political engagement for himself and fellow AACC members. “Without freedom of speech at the ballot box,” said Patterson, “incarcerated people have little to no means of holding accountable our far from perfect criminal legal system.”Deb Skarpos, an organizer with Families for Justice as Healing who spent 28 years in the system, was incarcerated before the right to vote was stripped in 2000. “We don’t have much of a voice in there,” she said, “and being able to vote made me feel part of the outside. It meant a lot to me.”At the hearing, supporters also spoke about the implications of felony disenfranchisement for racial equity, rehabilitation, and democracy. The practice has racist roots and unquestionably racialized consequences today, particularly in Massachusetts where Black citizens are eight times more likely than white citizens to be locked up and out of the electorate.As a new Sentencing Project report shows, disenfranchisement is associated with a range of adverse societal consequences that come at the expense of political and racial equality and the public good, ranging from lowered future political participation to roadblocks towards reintegration into society. One study has found that among individuals who had been arrested previously, 27 percent of non-voters were rearrested, versus 12 percent of voters. In other words, felony disenfranchisement’s impact on democracy reaches far beyond the prison gates, leaving the formerly incarcerated believing that they have lost the right to vote permanently, feeling excluded from society, and more likely to cycle back through the carceral system. Supporters of S.8/H. 26 who themselves had been or remain disenfranchised highlighted these points, and made clear how little disenfranchisement serves the public good. No one, they argued, is dissuaded from committing an offense by the threat of disenfranchisement. The function of disenfranchisement is wholly symbolic, with counter-productive if not deleterious and entirely unnecessary consequences.

With the recent committee vote, the Legislature is poised to position Massachusetts as a leader of a growing nationwide movement. In 2020, Washington, DC, restored the right to vote for those incarcerated. Just last month, the Elections Committee in the California Legislature passed legislation that would do the same.

At least 70 bills have been introduced this year across the country that address rights restoration for the formerly incarcerated. And a number of states have turned their attention to strengthening access for those who are in jail — who maintain the right to vote in all states while awaiting trial and in most states while serving misdemeanor sentences, but for whom barriers often make it impossible to actually cast a ballot. Notably, Massachusetts became the second state to enact legislation making voting easier in jail, filed and championed by Sen. Liz Miranda, former senator Adam Hinds, and Rep. Chynah Tyler, as part of the VOTES Act.  That public opinion and legislative action have shifted in tandem on incarcerated voting rights is a boon to democracy and a reminder that change is possible. Evidence suggests that new policies can change how we think about who deserves what. Perhaps the jail-based voting provisions passed last session have begun to move that dial. Assessments of whether our incarcerated community members are fundamentally deserving  of policy benefits or of basic rights are driven by fear and harmful stereotypes that construct “the inmate” in an exclusively negative light. These ideas, we suspect, are most certainly reinforced by political exclusion.
As policymakers and the public hear from incarcerated people about the reality and depth of their civic lives and commitments — as they did with the recent hearing — we hope they come to see these disenfranchised individuals in a different light: as parents, students, or military veterans who may have made mistakes, but who want and deserve the dignity to exercise their civic duty, and hold our sacred but flawed democracy accountable to its own mistakes, too. Kristina Mensik is an organizer with the Democracy Behind Bars Coalition and a PhD student at Duke University. Adam Eichen is a PhD candidate at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and fellow at the UMass Amherst Poll.