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Massachusetts is not the democratic bastion you think it is

Reforms like mail-in voting and expanded early voting are important, writes Kristina Mensik, but they do little to redress political inequality in our democratic system. (Getty Images)
Reforms like mail-in voting and expanded early voting are important, writes Kristina Mensik, but they do little to redress political inequality in our democratic system. (Getty Images)

Turnout in Boston’s preliminary municipal elections last month was terrible. Commentators and editorial boards blamed civic apathy — especially given the ways in which Massachusetts has worked to make voting more accessible. Some of this commentary  would have you believe the commonwealth is a democratic bastion. And while it’s true that our legislature has passed important voting reforms, in reality, Massachusetts’ democracy remains politically unequal.

To truly be a safeguard of democracy, the Massachusetts legislature must prioritize dismantling barriers to the ballot that affect communities who are historically the targets of voter suppression. That means protecting ballot access for Black and Hispanic communities who are disproportionately disenfranchised by incarceration.

Reforms like mail-in voting and expanded early voting are unquestionably important, but do little to redress political inequality. Research shows those reforms should not be credited for record 2020 turnout, and some, like MIT Professor Adam Berinsky, have cautioned that they can actually exacerbate political inequality. Why? Because these reforms can bolster turnout for already high-propensity, disproportionately white and affluent voting communities, but fail to remove obstacles to participation by Black, Hispanic and low-income voters. Indeed, political scientists have long shown this to be true of convenience voting reforms, and a MassVOTE report demonstrated this was the case in 2020 in Massachusetts.

Leaders in the state House have already demonstrated their support for making only mail-in voting and expanded early voting permanent this session. I hope they reconsider. The state Senate recently demonstrated a commitment to racial and political equality, by adopting an amendment to end the ‘de facto’ disenfranchisement of eligible incarcerated voters filed by Sen. Adam Hinds, and passing it as part of the VOTES Act.

There are between 7,000 to 9,000 citizens in Massachusetts serving time for misdemeanors, or who are incarcerated while awaiting trial (held in jail because they cannot afford bail), who have the right to vote but cannot exercise it.  These eligible voters often do not know they are eligible to vote, and cannot access absentee ballots or informational materials about the candidates. Those few who can access absentee ballot applications often find that, for a variety of reasons, their ballots are erroneously rejected. Advocates refer to this as de-facto or jail-based disenfranchisement.

Reforms like mail-in voting and expanded early voting are unquestionably important, but do little to redress political inequality.

The Hinds’ amendment  and jail-based voting bills, S. 474 also filed by Sen. Hinds and H. 836 filed by Reps. Liz Miranda and Chynah Tyler, would fix that. They would ensure those 7,000 to 9,000 eligible incarcerated voters can cast a counted ballot by placing commonsense requirements on sheriffs, department of corrections officials and the secretary of commonwealth.

But even if those pieces of legislation are adopted, jails and prisons will continue to strip hyper-incarcerated communities of political power. The approximately 9,000 citizens serving felony convictions also lose the right to vote. This is a recent development: for the first 200 years of Massachusetts history, we did not deprive Mass. citizens of their right to vote while serving prison sentences. Only 20 years ago, Mass. took the right to vote away from anyone serving a felony conviction after Gov. Cellucci’s petition to pass felony disenfranchisement on the ballot succeeded.

All Mass. citizens regain the right to vote after serving a prison sentence, yet many formerly incarcerated citizens believe that they have been permanently stripped of their voting rights. Some are told that by corrections officers. Having seen headlines about those citizens like Crystal Mason in other states, many simply fear that attempting to vote could lead to a felony conviction.

Professor Ariel White at MIT has shown that even those released after serving short jail sentences are less likely to vote than they would be otherwise, and that this impact is more pronounced for Black voters. Political scientists Vesla Weaver and Amy Lerman show that contact with the criminal legal system makes people withdraw from civic life in myriad ways. And further research suggests this impact on civic engagement can extend to families and loved ones of those incarcerated.

Achieving full democratic participation in Massachusetts will require that we end the disenfranchisement of all citizens in prisons and jails.

Ending the disenfranchisement of people entangled in the legal system — starting with those who maintain the right to vote while incarcerated — must be our legislature’s election reform priority, if for no other reason than it is unconstitutional and strips political power from a population that is 60% Black and Hispanic, and disproportionately poor.

Passing the jail-based voting bills to ensure those citizens who legally have the right to vote are able to exercise that right is an important first step. But going forward, our legislature and the democracy reform movement at large must consider the additional ways that incarceration and policies perpetuate inequities in political participation, and maintain political and racial inequality.

Achieving full democratic participation in Massachusetts will require that we end the disenfranchisement of all citizens in prisons and jails.

The Mass. legislature can and must act now to begin to redress the harm done to impacted communities by way of political suppression. If the legislature wants to build a participatory, equitable democracy, it must listen to those people supporting the jail-based voting bills and amendment #1 to the VOTES Act, and pass it.

Follow Cognoscenti on Facebook and Twitter.

Related:

Kristina Mensik Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Kristina Mensik is the campaigns director for the Roxbury-based National Council for Incarcerated and Formerly Incarcerated Women and Girls.

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