Bill that would restore prison voting rights in Mass. advances out of election laws committee
For the first time, a proposal to amend the constitution to restore the right to vote for incarcerated felons was favorably reported by a legislative committee on Wednesday, giving hope to reformers who aim to push the measure to the 2026 statewide ballot.
The bill (S 8 / H 26) by Sen. Liz Miranda and Rep. Erika Uyterhoeven would remove the constitutional amendment that was added in 2000 when voters approved a statewide ballot question making it illegal to vote from prison while serving a felony sentence.
Similar bills have been filed in the past, but Wednesday's Election Laws Committee vote marks the first time the proposal was favorably reported out of a committee, enabling it to move on in the legislative process.
"We should be furthering democracy. When I look at the commonwealth disenfranchising close to 5,000 people who had the right to vote until it was taken away — I think it's a stain on our commonwealth's history, here where we think of ourselves as the bastion of democracy," Miranda said.
Miranda, Uyterhoeven and other supporters say this is a racial justice issue, as people of color represent about 18% of the population in Massachusetts, but 58% of people in the carceral system. Uyterhoeven said 1.5% of African Americans in Massachusetts are serving time for felonies and therefore cannot vote under the constitution.
"We've had this fundamental right in one of the oldest constitutions, the constitution that our U.S. constitution is based on, up until the 2000s. And it was taken away in our lifetime. That didn't fall out of the sky, it came from the context of the tough on crime era in the 90s as a response to civic engagement and organizing among people who are incarcerated, and civic engagement and the right to vote are fundamental human rights," Uyterhoeven said.
For Miranda, this is also a personal matter.
"As someone who lives in a community that is over-incarcerated and who has had familial experience with all my brothers and my father being incarcerated, I'm not only doing it for the folks behind the wall, I'm furthering justice in memory of and in support of the people I love who did not have access to the ballot over the last 20 years," she said.
She said she was grateful to the committee for its favorable report, noting that "constitutional amendments are challenging to get out of committee," and it is a sign that "both the House and Senate understand that this is really about equity and justice, racial justice and furthering democracy."
Eleven members of the committee voted to report the bill favorably, and two reserved their rights. The only three Republican members of the committee — Sen. Ryan Fattman, Rep. Brad Jones and Rep. Paul Frost — all voted against recommending the bill.
The measure would need a favorable vote during a Constitutional Convention this session and next session in order to reach the ballot in November 2026. This session's convention is scheduled to get underway next month.
A favorable vote would require 101 lawmakers — a majority of the 200 legislative seats — to support the measure.
Miranda said that she believes "it will take some work" to get 101-plus lawmakers to vote for the measure, but that the committee's report is a "vote of confidence" and "a good first step."
Both she and Uyterhoeven said they believe the time is right for the measure, given the recently passed criminal justice reform and voting right expansion laws.
Massachusetts is not alone in reconsidering if inmates should be allowed to vote while serving time for felonies this year. Democratic lawmakers in California and New York have also filed bills and amendments to end felony disenfranchisement.
The idea is especially popular among younger voters. A recent UMass poll showed 71% of voters 18 to 29 in Massachusetts supported the right to vote for incarcerated people, though the poll did not delineate between felons and those in jails or prison without a convicted felony. The measure is less popular with older voters, though 54% of survey respondents aged 30 to 54 said they support it, while only 33% of those over 55 said they support incarcerated people's enfranchisement.
Paul Craney, spokesperson for the conservative-leaning nonprofit Massachusetts Fiscal Alliance, said he is confident that voters will reject the measure if it makes it to the ballot again.
"They're not respecting the will of the voters," Craney said, referring to the 2000 election where 60% of voters supported removing the right. "This wasn't a nail-biter election, and people's opinions about these things don't really change... I think the Legislature is out of sync with what the people want. There's a general feeling in Massachusetts that when people are incarcerated they don't have the right to vote. They're in there for a reason, and they are there to pay back their debts to society."
Craney said lawmakers advocating for the measure have some of the "loudest voices in the Legislature," but that it does not signify widespread support.
House Speaker Ron Mariano voted earlier in his career in favor of the amendment that led to the removal of the right to vote for incarcerated felons.
In 1998 and 2000, the two Constitutional Conventions where the Legislature voted on the matter to bring it to the 2000 ballot, Mariano and current Senate Ways and Means Chair Sen. Michael Rodrigues both voted in favor of taking away the right. Mariano did not respond to a question Thursday on his current view on the issue.
In 1998 the Legislature supported removing voting rights for incarcerated felons in a 148-39 vote. In 2000, 144 lawmakers supported the measure and 45 opposed it.
Now-House Minority Leader Rep. Brad Jones made the motion in 2000 to vote on the proposal, and was one of the three Republicans who voted Wednesday not to recommend the proposal that would reverse the decision.
"I think it fits into what is becoming a recurring theme for this session, which is 'We really don't care what the voters do, we can do what we want,' " Jones said about the committee's report on Thursday. He added that a majority of voters in all of the state's counties voted for the measure in 2000.
"During the period of your incarceration, because if you're incarcerated then you're separated from society, you should not necessarily be involved in electing the officials and crafting the laws that govern that society," Jones said.
In response to opposition comments about respecting the will of the voters, Uyterhoeven said that the measure would need to go back to the ballot in 2026 before going into effect, and "voters today deserve to have their will heard as much as people 20 years ago."
"Times change and people's values change over time," she said.
There are also some lawmakers still serving who voted against removing the right in 2000, among them Senate Majority Leader Sen. Cynthia Creem, Reps. Ruth Balser, Kevin Honan and Kay Khan, and Sen. Pat Jehlen.
During a debate at the time, Creem said she was proud to live in one of only three states that treats prisoners like citizens and said removing voting rights for incarcerated felons would mean taking "a step backward."
Comparing it to the death penalty, Creem said at the time that stripping prisoners of their right to vote was another means of punishment and said that punishment isn't the only reason criminals are imprisoned, mentioning rehabilitation as an essential part of prison.
Senate President Karen Spilka was not in the Legislature at the time, and therefore didn't vote on the measure.
The Democracy Behind Bars Coalition (DBBC), which is led by organizers in the MCI-Norfolk-based African American Coalition Committee (AACC), is pressing for the proposal's passage.
"I was thrilled to hear the news of this vote," Sean "Truth" Evelyn, DBBC organizer, former AACC member, and founder of the Explanations from Exile Project, said in a statement. "This decision offers a meaningful sense of hope for this vulnerable demographic to actually advocate for themselves and their families. I see the Commonwealth placing a higher valuation on democracy and redemption, and I'm heartened by that."