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Ballot Access for Incarcerated Eligible Voters

Thousands of Bay Staters who retain the right to vote while in pre-trial detainment or serving non-felony convictions are de-facto disenfranchised by a lack of access to the ballot. As our most governed population, ballot access for eligible incarcerated Bay Staters is critically important. What's more, ballot access in jail is a civil rights and racial justice issue, as our criminal legal system disproportionately impacts - and disenfranchises - Black communities and communities of ​color in Massachusetts.

The Facts​

All US citizens who are incarcerated on non-felony convictions or held in pre-trial conviction retain their constitutional right to vote.

Any given year, approximately 8,000 to 10,000 individuals incarcerated in Massachusetts retain their right to vote.

The Problem

However, incarcerated eligible voters in Massachusetts face de facto disenfranchisement due to a lack of access to absentee ballots, the fact that there is no set process across the Commonwealth's 14 counties for coordinating jail voting, and inconsistent processes and guidelines for sheriffs and clerks’ on ballot access and voter eligibility. The Emancipation Initiative’s 2018-19 report, Overcoming Barriers that Prevent Eligible Incarcerated People from Voting in Massachusetts highlights two main categories of institutional problems:

  • System to enable voting: 

    • Without streamlined guidelines for jails and without easy access to the internet or government offices, program officers, volunteers, and would-be voters cannot easily access voting essentials  and information like:

      • Verification of voter eligibility and registration status

      • Absentee ballot application forms

      • Deadlines for submitting applications and ballots

      • Information on candidates and elected offices

  • Residency determinations: 

    • In Massachusetts, eligible incarcerated voters are "specially qualified" and not required to be registered. While this can remove a barrier to participation, it also presents challenges. Would-be voters who did not believe they were previously registered to vote have absentee ballot applications rejected on the basis that are registered elsewhere. Many applicants do not have a means of checking their voter registration in advance, and their only option is to either submit a voter registration application or re-apply for an absentee ballot. 

    • Town clerks may also reject absentee ballot applications when would-be voters submit an absentee ballot application using their previous address.

    • Often, these rejections are not processed in time for an incarcerated eligible voter to re-apply to vote using a different address. 

What's more, Black people and people of color are overrepresented in - disenfranchised by - Massachusetts prisons and jails.


Our Work

We are working through the grassroots and grasstops to protect and promote ballot access for incarcerated eligible voters. That means we are working with elected officials to promulgate guidelines on ballot access, expand reporting, and hold our elected officials to account. This includes ballot access standards and reporting in the short-term, and passing legislation.

As a coalition of grassroots organizations, we are working to bolster ballot access programs in jails by proposing best-practices to individual sheriffs and facilitating those programs. We work with and include groups that organize in jails, like faith, educational, recovery, and legal organizations to help disseminate information on how to vote and who's on the ballot to incarcerated eligible voters.

Who We Are

The Democracy Behind Bars Coalition is coordinated by  Common Cause Massachusetts, the ACLU of Massachusetts, the Emancipation Initiative, Prisoners Legal Services, Real Cost of Prisons Project, Decarcerate Western Massachusetts, MOCHA, Healing Our Lands Inc, and The Sentencing Project. Member organizations include Black & Pink Boston, Bristol County for Correctional Justice, and more. Join us!

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