In Massachusetts organizers aren’t waiting on legislators to understand the importance of incarcerated citizens having voting rights. Earlier this year in January S.12 was introduced by Senator Adam Hinds in partnership with Emancipation Initiative. The bill would have amended the state constitution to remove the phrase, “excepting persons who are incarcerated in a correctional facility due to a felony conviction” from defining voter eligibility in local elections. The removal of this phrase from the state constitution would have restored incarcerated citizens voting rights and ended felony disenfranchisement in the state of Massachusetts entirely.
The bill did not move through the legislature as organizers had hoped. It was referred to the Election Laws committee and scheduled for a hearing in April. In Massachusetts all bills are scheduled with a committee hearing, giving residents the opportunity to show their support for every bill that’s introduced. Unfortunately, during this hearing though advocates showed up in support and there weren’t any vocal opponents to S.12, its own sponsor Senator Hinds was the one who lost the committee’s support. Hinds willingly compromised on his own legislation without any provocation. It was hurtful for residents to watch their legislator give in to the committee on their bill rather than fight for it. After witnessing their Senator’s weak arguments during the hearing, citizens lost trust for the legislative process. Their representative failed them and as a result S.12 reported adversely by the committee and did not pass. Fortunately, this was not the end. Citizens geared up for a statewide canvassing campaign to collect signatures in order to get the issue onto the ballot.
Statewide Mass POWER Coalition Established
In order to guarantee their success, organizers across the state have developed the Massachusetts Prisoners & Organizers Working for Enfranchisement and Restoration (Mass POWER). Mass POWER is a coalition convened by Emancipation Initiative, an all-volunteer organization, its coalition partners include Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign, Neighbor 2 Neighbor, Families for Justice as
Healing, the African American Coalition Committee at MCI-Norfolk and Black Latino Asian Cultural Committee and (BLACC) at Souza-Baranowski Correctional Center. Mass POWER is leading the fight to restore the right to vote to people incarcerated on felony convictions by annulling Massachusetts Constitutional Amendment CXX. The coalition filed an initiative petition for a constitutional amendment earlier this month. Once the petition is approved by the Attorney General’s office, they will work together to collect over 80,000 signatures in the Fall. Once the signatures are collected, the measure will advance towards a 2022 ballot question. The petition language is simply, “Article CXX of the Amendments to the Constitution is hereby annulled.”
In 2000, Massachusetts revoked the right to vote of many incarcerated people to retaliate against political activism inside MCI-Norfolk prison. At that time a group of politically active prisoners were encouraging other prisoners and their families to register to vote. Citizens incarcerated at MCI-Norfolk prison were working with their families to form a Political Action Committee. Rather than encouraging this type of civic engagement, the potential PAC was considered a threat by officials and as a result prisoners were punished, via the addition of Article CXX to the Massachusetts Constitution, which added “excepting persons who are incarcerated in a correctional facility due to a felony conviction” to the Commonwealth’s definition of eligible voters.
Why annul Amendment CXX?
With voting rights under attack across the nation, it is important for Massachusetts to take the lead on the right side of history by taking a clear stand for civic engagement, democratic participation, equal access to the ballot and full enfranchisement. Full enfranchisement includes the elimination of felony disenfranchisement. What stance for equal participation could be clearer than protecting the rights of our most marginalized population, the prison class? When we take a stance to protect the rights of the prison class we set a clear and high standard for the human rights of all people.
We have verified again and again the serious disparities that exist within our criminal justice systems across the country, the state of Massachusetts is no different. Massachusetts’ incarceration rate for Blacks is more than 6x that of whites. Looking at the numbers, it is obvious that Massachusetts’ criminal legal system is grossly disproportionate. This terrible ratio has a devastating impact on marginalized communities’ political power within the state, negatively impacting individuals who are African American and other people of color, economically marginalized, mentally ill, disabled and LGBTQ. Annulment is a critical no-cost step towards equity. Over all of these years, Vermont and Maine have continually maintained full enfranchisement. It is time for Massachusetts to rejoin them. Since legislators have failed the people thus far, the people are taking the task into their own hands.
Canvassing is a unique sport, it requires its citizens to be more involved in the process of passing legislation than the traditional bill approval process. With it comes education, canvassers while seeking signatures are also raising awareness among residents. It’s exciting to see that Massachusetts residents have the option to canvass to amend the constitution, this is not a possibility in many states, like Washington state, where constitutional amendments cannot be done through initiative petitioning. We must take advantage of this privilege to canvass to ratify this legislation because throughout the process of gathering signatures, the people have the power. The unity of the people is elevated to a place of pride and shared responsibility. Canvasing is a more comprehensive action that requires many more players and will result in more people being involved its shared success. Once canvassers have collected 80,000 signatures, those must be approved by the attorney general’s office. After the signatures are approved the measure will be added to the ballot to be voted on in 2022.
This comprehensive, multi-year process will require as much support as possible the statewide coalition is seeking partners in a range of different areas outlined. Mass POWER is seeking partners to endorse the campaign by publicly aligning your organization, congregation or other community group with this ballot initiative, allowing Mass POWER to list you as a campaign endorser. Groups can also support by promoting one of the many upcoming signature drives by announcing the event to your networks and members that you endorse this campaign and by informing them how to connect with Mass POWER to participate in gathering signatures. Groups can go a step further by joining the signature drive, mobilizing members and allies to join you one day or multiple days during the upcoming Fall to collect signatures of registered Massachusetts voters. Signatures can be collected in a variety of ways: at events, outside stores, near public transportation or wherever people gather. Finally, interested groups can provide in-kind support with simple tasks like printing and photocopying. Mass POWER welcomes partners at any or all of these levels, for those that are interested in supporting this campaign, please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org