New England states vary in granting voting rights to felons

The Massachusetts State House on Sept. 19, 2020. Photo by Caitlin Faulds/BU News Service

By Gwyneth Burns
BU News Service

With Election Day looming on Nov. 3, voters across New England are casting ballots early or by mail. But the right to vote is inconsistent across New England when it comes to convicted felons.

Voting rights range from allowing incarcerated felons to register and vote to limiting those rights until after someone is released from incarceration or after completing parole.

Felons in Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Rhode Island lose their voting rights while incarcerated but receive automatic restoration upon release, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“The prohibition on being registered and voting apply only while a person is currently incarcerated and only if for a felony conviction,” according to an election advisory to local election officials released by Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth William Galvin’s office on Oct. 6. “Once a person is released, they are eligible to register as a voter — there is no waiting period.”

According to Galvin’s office, upon release, the person can register and vote with no further action necessary.

The Election Protection Behind Bars Coalition is made up of Massachusetts organizations to promote ballot access for eligible incarcerated voters. Galvin’s office has been sharing information on how to protect these citizens’ rights.

“The right to vote is fundamental and should not be stripped from any incarcerated citizen,” said Kristina Mensik, assistant director of Common Cause Massachusetts, a member of the coalition, focused on overcoming barriers that make it difficult or impossible for the commonwealth’s incarcerated citizens to vote.

“Common Cause and many of our allies hope to build on the work of Mass POWER Vote last fall and resume the right to restore voting rights to all incarcerated citizens,” said Mensik, referring to the Massachusetts Prisoners and Organizers Working for Enfranchisement and Restoration campaign. “That right should not have been stripped of those serving felony convictions.”

In Rhode Island, Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea’s views align with Galvin’s.

“Secretary Gorbea believes that access to the ballot box is a critical part of civic engagement,” said Nick Domings, deputy communications director for Gorbea’s office. “Having the right to vote after incarceration helps a person build commitment to their community and move in a positive direction.”

The status is different in Connecticut, where felons lose their voting rights both while incarcerated and parole. Those rights are restored automatically after parole, according to Secretary of State Denise Merrill’s office.

Merrill has proposed a change in the law that would expand voter registration eligibility to paroled felons. She has advocated for the change in multiple legislative sessions, most recently in January, according to the state’s website.

“This legislation codifies my firmly held belief that those who have paid their debt to society deserve to have their voting rights restored immediately upon release from incarceration,” Merrill said. 

The legislation failed this year as the state Legislature on April 21 announced it would not reconvene before its constitutional adjournment on May 6 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Reattaching voting rights to people as they leave their period of confinement doesn’t just alleviate the confusion that can dampen registration, it also will help people to reintegrate into the civic life of their community,” Merrill said. “Voters who exercise their right to vote sooner are more likely to become lifetime voters.”

By contrast, Maine and Vermont felons never lose their right to vote, even while incarcerated, according to the National Center for State Courts.

“As a citizen of the United States, you have unimpeachable rights,” Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap said. “There are no provisions in Maine’s Constitution or laws that would put limitations on a citizen’s constitutional right to vote, and that is in line with my view that voting is a process that belongs to every American citizen, regardless of their legal status.”

Maine and Vermont, along with the District of Columbia, are the only jurisdictions where felons never lose the right to vote, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

“Those who are incarcerated are still human beings, and retaining the right to vote keeps them engaged in positively participating in society,” Dunlap said. “It helps them to retain their humanity and their dignity.”

Galvin’s issuance of guidance to elections officials this month was a step forward for those working to restore felon voting rights, advocates said, but it is an ongoing issue that will need to be addressed next legislative session.

“This issue is critically important because a true democracy holds the vote as a cherished duty, and all citizens, especially those most governed while in state control, must have the ability to hold their government accountable,” Mensik said.

This article was originally published in the Cape Cod Times.

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