The Massachusetts primary had the highest voter turnout in decades: More than 1.7 million votes were counted, with nearly 1 million ballots mailed in. It is clear that the groundbreaking vote-by-mail law enacted in July enabled almost two-thirds of primary voters to safely cast a mailed ballot during the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, a major obstacle lies ahead for many voters to similarly be able to mail in their ballot for the general election: the state’s eviction moratorium is slated to end on Oct. 17 — just weeks before Election Day.
If the moratorium ends, along with being evicted, many people will be suppressed from voting.
A recent report by City Life/Vida Urbana and MIT documented that as many as 1 in 3 Massachusetts tenants are presently at risk of eviction — over 300,000 renters. Housing courts also predict an avalanche of at least some 20,000 evictions being filed in Boston alone the first day the moratorium lifts.
If that wave of evictions hits, tenants will be urgently looking for alternative housing and will likely miss the Oct. 24 voter registration deadline. Evicted registered voters also run the high risk of not receiving their mail-in ballot due to no longer living at the address where they originally registered.
Even if those evicted attempted to vote in person, they would need to go to their original precinct where they and their home address are on the voting rolls — which may not be a possibility due to being geographically displaced and navigating potential homelessness. If they tried to vote at another polling location site, they could attempt to submit a provisional ballot — but it would not be counted on Election Day. Furthermore, if evicted tenants have no choice but to attempt in-person voting en masse, it directly places them and public health at risk, which could contribute to a potential second wave of COVID-19 infections this Fall.
Communities of color — already hit hardest by the pandemic — will also bear the brunt of this disenfranchisement in the form of simultaneous evictions and voter suppression.
It is well known that there are significant health disparities surrounding the coronavirus itself. Data from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s COVID-19 Health Equity Advisory Group found that Black and Latinx residents have contracted the coronavirus at a rate that is three times higher than white residents. The Advisory Group also noted that nine out of 10 of the towns and cities with the highest rates of COVID-19 in the state were in communities where more than half of the residents identify as a person of color — such as Chelsea.
Eviction and voter suppression are also historical issues that have long disproportionately affected communities of color due to systemic inequities rooted in racial discrimination. If the moratorium were to end in the middle of a pandemic, communities of color in Massachusetts would experience compounded levels of disenfranchisement. The impending eviction crisis — and its attendant consequences — will exacerbate historical barriers to the ballot box, particularly in low-income communities of color.
Data also show that a torrent of evictions will emerge from these same communities when the moratorium lifts.
City Life/Vida Urbana and MIT have found that 78 percent of eviction filings in Boston were in communities of color during the first month of the Massachusetts state of emergency. They also analyzed eviction records in Boston from 2014 to 2016, and confirmed that evictions are filed up to seven times as often in communities of color compared with predominantly white communities.
Thus, an onslaught of evictions would dramatically increase preexisting voter suppression in communities of color. It would exacerbate challenges experienced by voters with being able to securely register and vote by mail — or vote in person at their own peril.
To be sure, a number of Massachusetts landlords are advocating for the eviction moratorium to end — citing mounting mortgage payments and tenants not paying rent. A federal lawsuit challenges the state’s eviction moratorium, with several private landlords as plaintiffs. In a virtual hearing earlier this month, US District Judge Mark Wolf denied a request by landlords to immediately end the moratorium — yet questioned the constitutionality of it being enacted indefinitely. For now, the moratorium remains in place as the case continues to be litigated.
But ensuring the right to vote does not need to be a zero-sum game. Proposed legislative and policy solutions, such as the COVID-19 Housing Stability Act, extend the moratorium in a way that is inclusive of both vulnerable renters and landlords. These solutions are necessary to ensure that unprecedented levels of voter suppression due to eviction do not skyrocket in the weeks leading up to Election Day.
Then we can safely focus on record-breaking voter turnout in the general election.
Melanie Gleason is a staff attorney at and Iván Espinoza-Madrigal is executive director of Lawyers for Civil Rights.