Voting rights advocates in Massachusetts are celebrating a series of pandemic-era measures made permanent in June, but obstacles remain that disproportionately affect Black and Latino voters.
The VOTES Act, a voting reform law, expands early voting and no-excuse absentee voting. It was proposed by a Democratic-controlled legislature and signed into law by Republican Gov. Charlie Baker on June 22.
The state requires that early voting begins 17 days before the election for state biennial elections, and 10 days before election for presidential or state primaries. Early voting will be available for the November election between Oct. 22 and Nov. 4 this year.
However, officials in each municipality determine the number and location of early voting sites and absentee ballot drop boxes. That can mean less access in less wealthy communities, disproportionately making early voting less flexible for voters of color and leading to longer lines at the polls that can end up turning some away.
“In the past, some cities have had multiple locations and tried to engage voters where they’re at, while other towns have smaller staff and differing capacity,” said Geoff Foster, executive director at Common Cause Massachusetts. “Because these things vary across the state, voters need to check in with their local city clerks.”
According to a 2021 report from MassVOTE, areas with higher numbers of Black and brown residents have seen significantly lower voter turnout. About 90% of voters in some wealthy, heavily white towns cast ballots in the 2020 election, while less affluent, more diverse cities saw turnout as low as 55%.
Left out of the VOTES Act was something advocates say could remove a major barrier for lower-income people in Massachusetts: same-day voter registration.
“Lower-income voters and voters of color are oftentimes in areas with higher rates of renters, and folks might live in the same municipality but move from one precinct to another without knowing they have to update that when they move,” Foster said.
These voters may arrive to cast their ballots on Election Day, only to be turned away.
“They might find they’re inactive voters or they went to the wrong location,” Foster said. “We consider same-day registration unfinished business.”
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This project looks at the state of voting access, voting rights and inequities in political representation in all 50 states and Washington, D.C.
Absentee and vote by mail
The VOTES Act made permanent a 2020 pandemic-driven provision that allows any voter to cast an absentee ballot without an excuse.
However, drop boxes for those ballots are also determined independently by each city and town, so some voters have fewer options and must travel far greater distances.
Voting by mail doesn’t solve the problem either, said Foster.
“What we saw in 2020 when vote by mail was first offered in Massachusetts, is that it was utilized at higher rates in white and wealthy municipalities,” Foster said. “There are many different reasons for that, one being how election officials were communicating about new voting options to the public.”
No-excuse absentee voting survived a challenge from Republicans who filed a lawsuit claiming it violated Massachusetts’ state constitution, which states that voters may only vote by mail if they are out of town, physically disabled or have religious-based conflicts. On July 11, the Massachusetts Supreme Court upheld the new law.
In the state’s Supreme Court decision, Judge Scott Kafker wrote: “Voting is a fundamental right,” and nothing in the constitution prohibits legislature from “enhancing voting opportunities.”
Education and outreach
Though the state has expanded voting access, Foster said there is a lack of knowledge about the new options, which fuels disparities. No-excuse absentee voting and early voting are no good unless people know about them.
“There has been a good attempt made to make sure outreach materials are provided in languages that aren’t English, but there is still a gap in outreach and education,” Foster said.
Voting from prison or with a felony conviction
Only two states —Maine and Vermont— and Washington, D.C., allow prisoners with felony convictions to vote. Massachusetts did until a constitutional amendment passed in 2000 stripped them of that right.
Advocates have worked to restore those rights, but so far to no avail.
Still, Massachusetts makes it easier for people with felony convictions to vote than most other states. Once released from prison, voting rights are automatically restored, and voting while on parole is permitted.
People can vote if they are imprisoned for non-felony convictions or are being held for trial.
The VOTES Act passed in June requires sheriffs to provide adequate education about eligibility and information about ballot access to eligible voters in prisons. Advocates have questioned whether people incarcerated who are eligible to vote are actually provided that opportunity.It is estimated that about 9,000 people lose out on the right to vote in Massachusetts because of the felony voting laws.
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