Massachusetts Lieutenant Governor Candidate Wants To Let Incarcerated Felons Vote

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Should all prisoners have the right to vote?

Massachusetts state Senator Adam Hinds (D-Pittsfield) thinks so.

Hinds introduced a bill into the Massachusetts Senate this session called “An Act Relative To Voting Rights” (Massachusetts Senate Bill 473) that would help make it happen.

The bill would let incarcerated felons who are serving their sentences vote while in prison. That group would include people serving life sentences.

Hinds explained his support for the measure earlier this year. He said that not letting felons vote is racist.

“When we’re trying to dismantle our systems that are racist, that have racist outcomes, it takes lifting up the hood in our own commonwealth and saying, what are the implications?” Hinds said in July 2021, according to WAMC. “What were the intentions for both in the past and the legacies that we’re dealing with now?”

Currently, the only incarcerated people who can vote in Massachusetts are those convicted of misdemeanors. Felons who have served their sentences can vote in the Commonwealth, as well.

In 2000, Massachusetts voters voted 64 percent to 36 percent for a statewide ballot question to ban incarcerated felons from voting.

It requires an amendment to the state constitution to overturn a Supreme Judicial Court ruling — which is what the ballot question did. Then-acting governor Paul Cellucci opposed letting felons vote from prison, and started making a push for the constitutional change in 1997. He continued to do so after being elected governor in 1998, as well. The Massachusetts Legislature voted on the matter twice, as required by law, and overwhelmingly supported Cellucci’s idea. In 1998, state legislators (acting as a constitutional convention) voted 155-34 in favor of sending the proposal to the state’s voters, and then 144-45 in favor of doing so in 2000.

The measure then went to the ballot, where the people overwhelmingly approved it.

The statewide vote occurred during a time where incarcerated felons had the right to vote in the Commonwealth. In 1978, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled in the case Dane v. Board of Registrars of Concord that incarcerated people have the right to vote absentee in Massachusetts; their votes would come from the district where they lived before incarceration — not the location of the prison.

The court said:  “Each inmate of a Massachusetts correctional institution who is a duly qualified, registered voter in a Massachusetts municipality has the right under the Constitution of the Commonwealth to vote in State elections.”

The court cited the first article of the Declaration of Rights of the Massachusetts Constitution. It says that “[a]ll men are born free and equal, and have certain natural, essential, and unalienable rights.” The court also cited a 1916 Supreme Judicial Court ruling called Attorney General v. Suffolk County Apportionment Commissioners where the court said that that voting is a “right” in the Commonwealth.

Henry Dane, a lawyer, filed a complaint with the Concord Board of Registrars in 1976 because inmates, who were on the voter rolls in town, were planning to vote for fellow prisoner Carl Velleca for Concord’s Board of Selectmen. Velleca was serving time for an armed robbery. Velleca didn’t win the election, according to Home News Here.

Nationally, allowing incarcerated felons to vote is an unpopular idea. While 31 percent of the country thinks felons serving time should have the right to vote, 69 percent disagree, according to a 2019 poll from The Hill. Additionally, 89 percent said that terrorists shouldn’t have the right to vote, while only 11 percent think they should.

The bill filed by Hinds sits on the Joint Committee on Election Laws in the Massachusetts Legislature. There was a hearing on the bill on October 6, but no further action has been taken.

Hinds could not be reached for comment on Sunday or Monday this week.


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