Like 47 other states, Massachusetts prohibits prison inmates from participating in elections. That prohibition was added to the state constitution in 2000 when voters approved the change by a sweeping majority.
As those results attest, and as multiple opinion polls have confirmed, most people think it appropriate that criminals who are in prison for breaking laws should play no role in making laws, or in choosing those who do. The whole point of incarceration, after all, is to punish serious offenders by removing them from the society of law-abiding citizens and removing from them some core privileges of citizenship. Imprisoned felons lose the right to travel freely, the right to bear arms, and the right to privacy. They likewise lose the right to cast a ballot on Election Day.
Some left-wing politicians and activists find this objectionable. In 2019, while running for the Democratic presidential nomination, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont declared that “terrible people” deserve to vote — even the Boston Marathon bomber, he insisted, should not be disenfranchised. Not letting prisoners vote from their cells, Sanders wrote in a USA Today column, is just another example of the “voting suppression [that] is taking place all across the country.”
But requiring convicted criminals to pay their debt to the public before they can join in making public policy or electing public officials is not suppression. It is part of the process of holding violent, dangerous, or reprehensible felons accountable for what they have done. It is also a matter of common sense: Killers, rapists, arsonists, and child pornographers are locked up in order to exclude them from normal civic activities, and voting is the most quintessential civic activity of all.
Common sense notwithstanding, other ideologues have taken up Sanders’s call to let prisoners vote. In Massachusetts, legislation has been introduced to repeal the amendment approved by voters in 2000 and grant even the most remorseless Massachusetts criminals the right to vote behind bars.
During a recent hearing before the Legislature’s joint committee on election laws, a parade of witnesses offered an array of reasons for permitting incarcerated felons to take part in elections. To elevate their voice in the political process, several said. To encourage politicians to visit prisons more often. To prepare offenders to reenter society. To give them a reason to care about politics. To ensure that no citizen is disenfranchised for any reason at all.
Witness after witness maintained that felons “deserve” to vote as a matter of justice and democracy. Not one said a word about what justice might require from those who have committed serious offenses, or what they might owe to society or to those they harmed.
Some of the witnesses who addressed the committee did so by video from prison. One was Corey Patterson, an inmate at MCI-Norfolk, who indignantly described disenfranchisement as “an intentional, malicious act” and “an attempt to not only reduce my worth in my community, but reduce my worth even in my own household, as a husband and a father.” Missing from Patterson’s testimony was any reference to Gregory Phillips, the unarmed 24-year-old he stabbed to death in 2009 in an unprovoked fight. For that “intentional, malicious act” — second-degree murder — Patterson was sentenced to life imprisonment. Maybe it’s true that taking away his right to vote has, in some sense, “reduced” his “worth” in the community. But it’s a trivial loss compared with what he so brutally took away from his innocent victim.
Senator Liz Miranda, a Boston Democrat and cosponsor of the bill to allow prisoners to vote, was one of many speakers who cast the issue in racial terms. “Black and brown people continue to be disenfranchised in state prisons and houses of corrections across the commonwealth,” she claimed.
It’s a dishonest argument. No prisoners in Massachusetts are disenfranchised because of their skin color. They are disenfranchised regardless of skin color. In any case, the largest share of inmates in Massachusetts is white (42 percent), not Black (29 percent) or Hispanic (25 percent). No one denies that racial inequities exist in society. But Massachusetts did not suspend the voting rights of incarcerated lawbreakers out of racial animus. It did so because casting a ballot in a democratic society is an exercise of power, and to bestow that power on convicted criminals before they complete their punishment would be perverse. Massachusetts voters got it right in 2000. There is no reason to overturn their judgment.
Jeff Jacoby can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby. To subscribe to Arguable, his weekly newsletter, visit https://bit.ly/ArguableNewsletter.