Nineteen years after Massachusetts voters agreed to a constitutional amendment banning people incarcerated on felony convictions from voting in state elections, a state senator from Pittsfield is pushing to re-enfranchise those prisoners.
Sen. Adam Hinds is seeking to again amend the section of the state Constitution spelling out who is qualified to vote, striking the words added pursuant to that 2000 referendum: “excepting persons who are incarcerated in a correctional facility due to a felony conviction.”
Hinds told the Election Laws Committee that almost 20 years after the 64-36 statewide vote in 2000, “everyone in this body and throughout Massachusetts and the country are much more aware of the disproportionate impact of over-incarceration on communities of color, particularly low-income communities of color.”
“There is a long and unfortunate history in this country related to the treatment of people of color and related to using voter disenfranchisement negatively, and so that is the context in which I file this legislation,” Hinds said. “I, for one, feel it is incumbent upon me as a legislator, and I feel it’s incumbent upon this entire body to be systemic in the effort to dismantle laws and policies that reinforce inequality and unequal rights in this commonwealth.”
Hinds told the committee, which is chaired by Rep. John Lawn of Watertown and Sen. Barry Finegold of Andover, that he was open to discussing “handling certain cases differently,” including “folks who have taken the life of another individual.”
Though Hinds said he was “very well aware that this is likely to be controversial and provoke a strong reaction,” no one testified against his bill (S 12) during the roughly hourlong hearing.
Supporters of the measure said it would help people incarcerated for felonies stay engaged with their communities, potentially easing their reentry, and help alleviate confusion over voting rights for prisoners who are eligible to vote — those held on misdemeanor charges, for example — and for people released on parole and probation.
“There’s a hunger to voice their opinion and their vote behind bars,” Rachel Corey of the Emancipation Initiative said.
Corey urged lawmakers to visit houses of correction and state prisons and hold hearings there on this and other issues affecting the incarcerated population. “There’s a lot of wisdom inside,” she said.
Finegold asked Rahsaan Hall of the American Civil Liberties of Massachusetts what he thought of Hinds saying he would be open to having people convicted of certain felonies eligible to vote, while others are not.
Hinds said the ACLU supports “full suffrage.” He said there is room for conversation, “but we believe when people are incarcerated, they are still people.”
The process of amending the state Constitution takes years, with a committee hearing one of the earliest steps. Committees have until April 24 to report out proposed constitutional amendments, and proposals that are advanced will need to earn the support of a majority of the 200-seat Legislature in two consecutive sessions before the question can placed before voters.
The amendment prohibiting people incarcerated for felony convictions from voting passed the Legislature 155-34 on July 29, 1998, and then again 144-45 on June 28, 2000.