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Groups Call for Increased Voting Access in MA Prisons, Jails

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Tuesday, July 6, 2021   

BOSTON -- Advocates for voting rights are calling on Massachusetts lawmakers to increase access to the ballot box in jails and prisons before this fall's elections.

People serving felony convictions in the Commonwealth are not eligible to vote, but those convicted of misdemeanors or awaiting trial in jails are.

Al-Ameen Patterson, vice-chair of the African American Coalition Committee, who has been incarcerated in Norfolk for 12 years, said at a town hall with the Democracy Behind Bars Coalition the biggest barriers he sees to voting while incarcerated are lack of awareness about voting eligibility, and sheriffs' failure to provide the necessary information.

"I think the sheriffs are guilty of deliberate indifference because they just show no interest in publishing the rights, the policies and procedures of voting while incarcerated," Patterson contended.

A bill before the General Court would require sheriffs to do more voting outreach, from providing absentee-ballot applications and information about candidates, to requiring counties with more than 800,000 people to have a polling location in the county jail itself.

Groups are also pushing to restore voting rights to those serving felony convictions, as well as to end prison gerrymandering.

Rep. Liz Miranda, D-Boston, added it's a major problem the census counts incarcerated people where prisons are located rather than in their home communities. She noted many prisons are in white suburbs, while most incarcerated people in Massachusetts are from over-policed low-income communities and communities of color.

Miranda said what's known as prison gerrymandering takes political power and resources away from people, many already stripped of their right to vote.

"They're coming from Roxbury and Dorchester, Lawrence and Lowell, and they're living in communities which count them in the census and get resources for their towns, yet they belong to us," Miranda outlined. "It has led to our communities not getting what they deserve."

Miranda added the Commonwealth jails eight times more Black people than white people, and far more Black people are kept from voting because of a felony conviction.

Massachusetts is the most recent state to ban voting while incarcerated for a felony, via a ballot initiative passed in 2000, in response to political organizing within prisons.


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