Grappling with question of whether prisoners should be allowed to vote

Globe Staff/Adobe

Key element of citizenship should not be pulled away

Thank you for your always informative pro-con columns (“Should prisoners be allowed to vote?” Opinion, July 23). Abdallah Fayyad brought out some strong arguments in favor of prisoners’ right to vote. Specifically, in today’s world, we need to consider withholding prisoners’ vote as another vestige of systemic racism, directed at the greatly disproportionate Black and Latinx populations in our prisons.

Prisoners should not lose their ability to see themselves and their civic choices represented. If the emphasis is to be on rehabilitating prisoners, then they should be civically educated and engaged. Voting is a constitutional right that inmates should not lose by virtue of their imprisonment.


In contrast, I find Jeff Jacoby’s logic in arguing against this right to vote to be questionable at best. First, he singles out the extreme example of a terrorist criminal such as Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Further, his characterization of the vote as a “societal privilege” can be interpreted as a right to be decided on an arbitrary basis rather than as a right of citizenship. This argument can be used by a capricious or suppressing administration, and that would be dangerous when the decision is up to those who have a partisan agenda as to who does and does not deserve this so-called privilege.

The vote must be based on one person, one vote, not on differential rights to full citizenship.

Mary Byrne


The writer is an associate professor emerita at the School of Social Work at Salem State University.

Legacy of John Lewis calls on us to look at our biases

Honoring the legacy of the late Representative John Lewis means reexamining our biases and embracing ideas that may not be popular but that are morally right. The polling data Jeff Jacoby cites is irrelevant. We must realize that Lewis’s work is not done, and I don’t just mean the Voting Rights Act (“A new Voting Rights Act is long overdue,” Editorial, July 26). One thing Massachusetts can do is to allow incarcerated people to exercise their right to vote.


While Black people make up less than 10 percent of the state population, they are incarcerated at a far greater rate. The Globe has reported awful conditions in state prisons numerous times, and little has changed. Little will change as long as politicians can ignore incarcerated members of our population.

Prisoners here lost the right to vote only 20 years ago, in a ballot question urged by Paul Cellucci, then governor, after he found the idea of inmates organizing for better conditions too much to stomach.

Jacoby’s op-ed forces us to consider what kind of society we want to be. Should the rights of citizenship be up for debate?

Jarred Johnson


Many surprised to learn that 20 years ago, Mass. took away this right

I was pleased to read Abdallah Fayyad’s “Yes, they should be allowed to vote while serving.” Last year I had the privilege of following the leadership of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated organizers as a volunteer campaign manager for the Massachusetts Prisoners and Organizers Working for Enfranchisement and Restoration campaign to restore voting rights to incarcerated people. We found many voters we talked to were surprised and disappointed to learn that Massachusetts took away prisoner voting rights only 20 years ago.

Fayyad highlights the racist history of prisoner disenfranchisement, and we must recognize that this history is recent and a choice we continue to make. The Mass POWER campaign further emphasized to me that we construct our systems of incarceration to isolate members of our community. Our loved ones and neighbors are walled away, given only expensive methods to communicate with the outside, and denied basic participation in government.


We took away the right to vote in direct response to prisoners organizing and making their voices heard. In Massachusetts we must challenge racist systems such as disenfranchisement and embrace all members of our community instead of trying to disappear them into prisons.

Austin Frizzell

Jamaica Plain

Some key support, at least

In Jeff Jacoby’s concluding remarks to “No, voting is a privilege that they rightly forfeit,” I was pleased to learn of his support for former felons when he wrote, “The time for convicts to regain the vote is after their debt has been paid.”

Kevin J. Tagliaferri


Voting rights are not a competition

Jeff Jacoby’s argument for disenfranchisement of the imprisoned rests strongly on the questionable theory that the exercise of rights of citizenship, such as voting, are competitive in nature: that granting the right to vote to one party hurts the exercise of that right by another. For example, Jacoby asks whether rapists should ”be permitted to cancel out the votes of the people they raped.”

This question is a close analog to one used to support the public silencing of those with heterodox opinions — sometimes called “cancel culture.” We may ask, for example, why a person with transphobic views should be allowed to drown out a trans person, as though freedom of speech had room for only one set of views.


The underlying theory here, to put it another way, is that speech and voting are finite resources, and access to them is a privilege that should be doled out only to those we judge to be deserving. This is in stark conflict with the underlying assumption of democratic nations such as ours, which is that both speech and voting are rights of every citizen, and both work best when they are most widely exercised.

Jon Kiparsky


Prisoners shouldn’t be pawns in political chess game

There is legitimate controversy about whether prisoners should be eligible to vote, but after serving their time (in prison and on parole) they are eligible to vote in most states. The people of Florida voted overwhelmingly to confirm this policy in November 2018. In the two years since then, the policy has been hotly contested, ending (so far) in the recent Supreme Court decision to defer to the lower court that held that those eligible must first pay all fines and fees before they are able to vote.

The Florida Rights Restoration Coalition is working to restore this right to vote, using legislative and judicial efforts as well as soliciting tax-deductible donations to help the former prisoners pay their outstanding fines and fees. Florida’s hotly contested electoral votes are all but essential for either party to win the November election. Former prisoners cannot afford to be pawns in a political chess game.


Ellen C. Perrin