Getting out the prisoner vote

Healey, sheriffs joining forces to get ballots to inmates

EVEN THOUGH they’re locked up during a pandemic, it’s starting to look like the roughly 6,800 prisoners across the state who are eligible to vote will have a better chance to do so as Election Day approaches. 

A statewide coalition of organizations including Common Cause Massachusetts, League of Women Voters of Massachusetts, Prisoners’ Legal Services, and the ACLU of Massachusetts are putting volunteers into the effort and pressuring state officials to do their part. 

At the urging of those organizations, Secretary of State William Galvin reminded town clerks on October 6 that eligible prisoners are entitled to vote. On Thursday Attorney General Maura Healey and the Massachusetts Sheriffs’ Association said they plan to work together to ensure inmates have accurate voting information, understand their rights, and have the ability to vote.  

“Everyone who has the right to vote on paper must have the ability to exercise that right in practice,” said Kristina Mensik, assistant director of Common Cause Massachusetts.  

More than 40 years ago, in O’Brien v. Skinner, the US Supreme Court affirmed that states cannot deny eligible incarcerated voters access to the ballot simply because they are in prison. Any prisoner 18 or older who is being held on pre-trial detention, a civil commitment, or a misdemeanor conviction is eligible to vote. Those convicted of felonies are not. 

Galvin and Healey’s memo and educational materials didn’t include any new policies—state election law around prison voting hasn’t changed in the last 20 years. “This advisory is meant simply to reiterate that information to clerks who may not have received many applications from incarcerated voters in the past,” said a spokeswoman for Galvin’s office.

Absentee ballot applications must be received by local election officials by Oct 28. Absentee ballots must be postmarked by Nov. 3, Election Day. Absentee ballots postmarked by Nov. 3 Nov. 6 is the final day for absentee ballots to be received by local election officials to be counted.  

According to a 2019 report from Emancipation Initiative, a group of community activists seeking criminal justice reform, there are two roadblocks prisoners face in voting behind bars. One is the poor access to information on how to get absentee ballots, and the other is the lack of knowledge local election officials have on inmate voting, which routinely leads to the disenfranchisement of prison voters, sometimes unintentionally. As a result of these inequities most persons detained in jail are eligible to vote, but very few actually do.

Problems with voting from jail also disproportionately impact communities of color because they’re also overrepresented in jails.  According to the Vera Institute, in 2018, Black people constituted 7 percent of state residents, but 18 percent of people in Massachusetts county jails and 27 percent of people in state prison.

To vote, inmates must request an absentee ballot application and check off a box that indicates they’re incarcerated but not for a felony conviction. Prisoners typically vote in the city or town where they lived before incarceration, not the city or town where the correctional facility is located. If they still have an address in that town, they can use that.

If the prisoner doesn’t have access to an absentee ballot application, they can send a written request to their local election official in the city or town they resided in before incarceration. The note must mention that they’re in prison without a felony conviction, and that they’re a “specially qualified voter.” The letter has to be signed and explicitly note the prison’s address so the ballot is sent there. The state considers detainees to be “specially qualified,” as voters, barring any felonies. As a result of that classification, they don’t have to register before completing an absentee ballot. 

It’s possible to also vote in the community where the correctional facility is located, but the prisoner must provide evidence of work release activity there or a local bank account. 

CommonWealth reached out to 13 county sheriff offices in early October to see what efforts were being made to educate prisoners on voting rights. Eight of the offices responded, explaining what steps they are taking. 

“We post and hand out bilingual fliers that lay out eligibility requirements and the process for requesting a ballot. This year, we are recommending people request and submit ballots early to make sure they clear the US Postal Service in time,” said Rob Rizzuto, a spokesman for Hampden County Sheriff Nick Cocchi.

Hampshire County’s law librarian, Janet Kline, said one inmate at her facility became emotional when he learned he could vote. “He said he had never done this before,” she said. “He never felt empowered to vote. But once he found out he could, he called and let his family know.” 

In Essex County, GOTV posters in English and Spanish have been up in all housing units, attorney visiting areas, and the library for the two months leading up to the election. A community relations coordinator is available to help answer questions. When a ballot arrives, the actual voting takes place in a classroom. The prisoner is called to the classroom, makes his choice, and then the ballot is mailed to the town clerk.  

“We did have an instance in the most recent September primary where an absentee ballot did not arrive at our Middleton facility until the day before the election,” said spokeswoman Gretchen Grosky. In that instance, the county hand delivered the inmate’s ballot to the Lawrence city clerks office to ensure it was counted.  

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.

 Why did this county go so far to make sure a prisoner’s right to vote was respected?  

We want people to leave our facilities on a path to good citizenship,” said Grosky. “Casting a ballot is empowering as well as a strong reminder that this government is about individual participation.”