“The VOTES Act’s jail-based voting provisions will require sheriffs, DOC, and Secretary of Commonwealth facilitate voting for the 7-9,000 incarcerated eligible voters in Mass”
We’re still waiting to see what Gov. Charlie Baker does with this, but in the meantime here’s the latest from those working to secure the vote for incarcerated individuals in the Commonwealth:
For the first time in Massachusetts history, a bill with provisions to end the disenfranchisement of currently and formerly incarcerated eligible voters is on the Governor’s desk. [Last week], the House of Representatives followed the State Senate in passing a final version of the VOTES Act, whose “jail-based voting” provisions, as they are referred to, were drafted and supported by the African American Coalition Committee (AACC), a social justice organization based in MCI-Norfolk, in partnership with the Democracy Behind Bars Coalition (DBBC).
“We in the AACC have been fighting for our political rights and the political power of all people impacted by incarceration from behind the wall,” says Al-Ameen Patterson, Chair of the AACC and co-chair of the DBBC, “And today, this is our win.”
The final VOTES Act jail-based voting provisions will create a system of statewide mail-in and absentee voting for incarcerated eligible voters, improve registration rates and participation, and ensure the involvement of trusted messengers to encourage mobilization behind the wall.
“Although the final language isn’t everything we wanted, and our work is far from over, we are confident this legislative victory will strengthen our communities’ political power and begin to redress Massachusetts’ history of suppressing the political voice of incarcerated people,” says Patterson.
In 2001, Massachusetts revoked the right to vote from individuals serving felony convictions as a punitive response to civic engagement work by incarcerated people, especially voter registration drives organized in MCI-Norfolk.
“The passage of the VOTES Act by the Massachusetts Legislature brings us one step closer to making our democracy stronger, our communities safer and our society more just and equitable,” said Nicole D. Porter, Senior Director of Advocacy with The Sentencing Project. “While there is still work to be done, this important legislation will protect and guarantee the right to vote for thousands of currently incarcerated eligible voters throughout the Commonwealth. Now, we urge Governor Charlie Baker to give a voice to those who have been silenced for far too long and sign this bill into law.”
In October, the Senate adopted a jail-based voting amendment filed by Senator Adam Hinds before passing the VOTES Act, and in January, the House adopted an amendment filed by Representatives Liz Miranda and Chynah Tyler. Organizers with the DBBC say that the conference committee bill is not the exact language for which they advocated, but still strong.
“This bill will – for the first time in the Commonwealth’s history – require that prisons and jails take proactive steps to ensure voters in their custody can exercise their constitutionally-protected right to vote,” says Kristina Mensik, Co-Chair of the Democracy Behind Bars Coalition. “It will make voter registration and know-your-rights part of the re-entry process. And – we hope – it will make clear that prisons and jails are at the center of any conversation about equitable democracy.”
Says Austin Frizzell, Strategic Learning and Evaluation Coordinator with The National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls: “We need clear and transparent requirements on the Massachusetts Department of Correction and houses of corrections who consistently fail to respect the legal rights of incarcerated people to vote. We need basic reporting requirements: as things stand, there is no way to hold sheriffs and DOC accountable for jail-based voter suppression because the public has no access to data on participation – it isn’t tracked. We need to understand how many people can and do vote behind the wall, especially after legislation aimed at strengthening participation is passed.”