Statewide Advocacy Coalition Urges Sheriff Koutoujian to Protect Ballot Access Statewide; Supports Effort by Legislators

Coalition asks President of the Massachusetts Sheriffs Association to lead the way in ensuring incarcerated eligible voters are not denied their right to vote.

BOSTON – Today, the Election Protection behind Bars Coalition urged Sheriff Koutoujian to join the Secretary of the Commonwealth and the legislature in proactively protecting the right to vote for incarcerated citizens in Massachusetts.

The coalition asked Sheriff Koutoujian to issue recommendations to sheriffs across the state on how to ensure meaningful ballot access for incarcerated eligible voters. The Secretary of the Commonwealth issued guidance to elections officials on ballot access for incarcerated voters less than one week after the coalition requested he do so. The coalition letter, copied below, also urges the Sheriff who has been a champion of civic engagement to take more proactive measures within his own jail and lead by example, as he has many times in the past. The coalition believes that Galvin’s guidelines are rendered meaningless if incarcerated citizens are not afforded access to ballot applications and voting materials.

On September 25th, Representative Lindsay Sabadosa, Senator Adam Hinds, and over 30 members of the legislature wrote to the Sheriff requesting he confirm that all Sheriffs in the Commonwealth have a plan to: “Inform everyone housed at their HOCs about the election date and deadlines; provide assistance to anyone who wishes to register to vote; make absentee ballot request forms available; and assist residents with the completion of said forms to ensure ballots arrive in a timely manner (and can be returned in a timely manner).”

In a response sent twelve days later, the Sheriff wrote that he would follow up with sheriffs to gather this information.

“Simply stated, that is not enough,” said Kristina Mensik, assistant director at Common Cause Massachusetts. “It is the sheriffs’ – responsibility to protect the right to vote for citizens held in their jails and houses of correction. That eligible voters are detained each year is not new. Less than a month before Election Day, the information Sheriff Koutoujian said he would work to gather is information that should have already been readily available – now is the time to be reaching out to eligible citizens and encouraging them to vote.”

The coalition’s letter urges the sheriff to provide transparent and detailed information on his own plan to ensure that voters who are incarcerated in Middlesex have meaningful access to the ballot and are encouraged to participate. In previous years, volunteers had access to the jail and helped disseminate voter materials, helped citizens fill out absentee ballot applications, and organized candidate information sessions. This year, due to COVID-19, these volunteers do not have access.

“If the state can take away someone’s ability to vote simply by locking them up 30 days before Election Day, our democracy cannot stand,” said elly kalfus, a coordinator with the Emancipation Initiative. elly was one of three volunteers who went into the Middlesex County Jail and House of Correction in the fall of 2018 to help incarcerated voters fill out absentee ballot applications. “When we went in 2018, we helped 12 men request absentee ballots, and the Sheriff stopped in and declared his commitment to voting. This year volunteers can’t go in and there won’t be a photo op, and we have to ask, will anyone get to exercise their right to vote?”

Galvin’s step of providing guidance to election officials this week is critical and will help ensure that citizens’ ballot applications are not unduly rejected. But that guidance only matters if citizens have access to ballot applications in the first place.

Because Massachusetts disproportionately incarcerates Black citizens and citizens of color, the coalition argues that the lack of ballot access in jail strips political power and representation from those communities, too. The groups urge sheriffs across the Commonwealth to consider this issue as a fundamental civil rights and racial justice issue, especially in light of the mass mobilization for racial justice and renewed civil rights movement.

“As we continue to reckon with the impacts of structural racism, the Commonwealth has an opportunity and an obligation to ensure that incarcerated eligible voters, disproportionately black and brown people, are not disenfranchised due to a lack of guidance and leadership on this issue,” said Lizz Matos, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services, “We hope that one day very soon everyone who is incarcerated in the Commonwealth will again have the right to vote, but until then, it is a matter fundamental to our democracy that those who have retained the right to vote are enabled to exercise it on election day.”

“All eligible voters—incarcerated or not—should be able to cast their ballots safely and conveniently this November,” said Rahsaan Hall, director of the Racial Justice Program at the ACLU of Massachusetts. “Sheriffs must ensure meaningful access to the ballot for eligible voters who are incarcerated. We look forward to working with Sheriff Koutoujian to ensure this guidance is heeded.”

“We are in unprecedented times, and need unprecedented bold leadership from Sheriff Koutoujian, said Pastor Franklin Hobbs, of Healing Our Land. “It is a civil rights infringement not to put infrastructure in place for citizens – returning or incarcerated – to exercise their right to vote.”

“This is a continuation of the struggle for voting rights which began in the 1950’s. It is important that we each think of it that way and continuing organizing to ensure access to the ballot for everyone who is eligible,” said Lois Ahrens, Founding Director of the Real Cost of Prisons Project.

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The Election Protection Behind Bars Coalition is led by Common Cause Massachusetts, the Emancipation Initiative, Prisoners Legal Services, the ACLU of Massachusetts, the League of Women Voters of Massachusetts, and Healing our Land. Participating organizations include the Real Cost of Prisons Project, Decarcerate Western Massachusetts, Black & Pink Boston, MOCHA, Bristol County for Correctional Justice, The Sentencing Project, and more. Additional information can be found at. www.safeelectionsma.org/behindbars

Full letter below and here.

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October 8, 2020

Sheriff Peter J. Koutoujian
400 Mystic Avenue, 4th Floor
Medford, Massachusetts 02155

Dear Sheriff Koutoujian,

We, the Election Protection Behind Bars Coalition, are writing to express our support for the letter sent to you by Senator Hinds, Representative Sabadosa, and members of the legislature. We appreciate your response and the efforts you have undertaken to ensure that citizens who maintain the right to vote can exercise that right while incarcerated in Middlesex County. However, we respectfully urge you to take two additional steps: to provide critical, additional information on your ongoing measures to ensure every eligible voter has meaningful ballot access in Middlesex, and also that you leverage your power as President of the Massachusetts Sheriffs Association and reputation as a champion of civics, and issue proactive recommendations as quickly as possible to sheriffs across the state.

First, year after year eligible incarcerated citizens are unable to vote because they are not provided meaningful access to the ballot. Everyone who maintains the right to vote on paper must be able to exercise that right in practice. We strongly believe that proactively providing eligibility information, ballot applications, key dates and reminders, and candidate information is squarely the responsibility of the jail or prison in which an eligible voter is held, just as it is that prison or jail’s responsibility to ensure that citizens have easy access to other basic rights like food and water. As you know, it is also in the interest of corrections to ensure that incarcerated citizens not only have straightforward access to the ballot, but are actively encouraged to vote as civic participation reduces the likelihood of re-arrest.[1]

For that reason, we respectfully ask that you provide proactive recommendations to sheriffs across the state in addition to gathering information as your letter indicates. We have included a list of best practices based on our coalitions’ work in jails over the years, and welcome the opportunity to confer with your office.

Second, we are hopeful that you lead by example this fall as you have in years past. We thank members of your staff for meeting with us before the primary and would appreciate responses to the following questions in furtherance of this goal:

  1. What policies and procedures does your jail already or currently have in place that reminds eligible citizens or their right to vote? We were glad to learn that your staff spoke with many individual citizens prior to the primary, but we believe that data on eligible incarcerated voters must be available, and, as in other jails, direct communications be made to each eligible voter.
  2. What policies and procedures does Middlesex county have in place that provide for requesting and casting a mail or absentee ballot? In particular, what procedures are in place to ensure that election mail, including absentee ballot applications and ballots themselves, are not delayed, especially given delays in the mail and attacks on the USPS that may slow these materials?
  3. Do you have records of voter participation from inside the jail? Please provide us with information on how many eligible incarcerated people have voted – or tried to vote – from the jail in the last several elections. We respectfully request this information for 2020 – the past primary and upcoming general once it is available. We know that as someone who is committed to and understands the immeasurable value of civic participation, you understand the importance of this information for our coalition’s ongoing effort to ensure that our state has the policies in place to enable all eligible citizens, including those presently incarcerated, to vote.
  4. What are your plans for ensuring ballot access in the unfortunate event that Middlesex sees a spike in COVID-19, as is the case in Essex? That citizens are incarcerated should never mean their disenfranchisement, and voting is a fundamental right that must still be in place during a pandemic – and is perhaps more important than ever when a citizen is at heightened risk of contracting COVID-19 due to their incarceration.

We have also prepared best-practices, attached, taken from our experience facilitating access to voting in counties across Massachusetts in 2018, communication with other jail voting projects across the country, and recommendations from experts at the Sentencing Project and Campaign Legal Center that we hope can inform your efforts within Middlesex, and recommendations to sheriffs across the state.

Finally, we again appreciate your response to members of the legislature who wrote to you on these matters. But with less than a month until the election, there is no time to spare: we respectfully urge you to disseminate clear guidelines to sheriffs across the state rather than collecting information on ongoing efforts that may or may not be in place. Although we understand that Sheriffs could have already made this information available to those in their custody and the responsibility is not solely yours, we are writing in the hope that you can leverage your role to address this urgent need.

Thank you for your time, assistance, and leadership. We would welcome the opportunity to meet with you and discuss the program you have in place, your plans for providing access to the ballot, recommendations to sheriffs, and how our coalition of advocacy, grassroots, and impacted groups can support our shared goal of ensuring incarcerated voters can participate in our democracy.

Best,

The Election Protection Behind Bars Coalition:

Kristina Mensik, Common Cause Massachusetts
Jesse White, Prisoners Legal Services
elly kalfus, Emancipation Initiative
Pastor Franklin Hobbs, Healing Our Land
Rahsaan Hall, the ACLU of Massachusetts
The League of Women Voters of Massachusetts
Lois Ahrens, The Real Cost of Prisons Project

 

[1] The Sentencing Project, Felony Disenfranchisement: A Primer (2019): https://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/felony-disenfranchisement-a-primer/