Coalition calls on Middlesex sheriff to protect votes of incarcerated people ahead of election

The Election Protection Behind Bars Coalition wrote a letter to Middlesex Sheriff Peter Koutoujian on Oct. 9, asking him to take further steps to protect the right of eligible incarcerated voters to cast their ballots in the upcoming election, and to provide guidelines for sheriffs statewide.

The coalition is composed of various organizations, such as Common Cause Massachusetts, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and the League of Women Voters, according to the press release.

“We came together this year … to ensure that people who are incarcerated and maintain the right to vote can actually exercise that right in practice,” Kristina Mensik, assistant director of Common Cause Massachusetts, said. “There is no statewide system to ensure that that happens … people who maintain the right to vote who are incarcerated are de facto disenfranchised.”

Mensik noted that the coalition has two goals, the first of which is to protect voting rights of incarcerated eligible voters in the upcoming Nov. 3 election. This includes providing them with absentee ballot applications, election information and a secure way to get their ballots back to the elections commission.

According to Mensik, Koutoujian is the president of the Massachusetts Sheriffs’ Association and has already committed to gathering information from others about what steps it is taking to protect ballot access. 

“That’s a good step, but it’s one that should have happened about three months ago, if not years before,” Mensik said. “So our ask of him is that he … provide recommendations that are based on what he’s actually doing in the Middlesex Jail itself, which we’re a bit murky on.”

Jesse White, pro bono and policy counsel at Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts,  related mass incarceration to issues of racial injustice.

“Our modern prison and policing systems are rooted in a long history of slavery, racism, and white supremacy in the United States, which has led directly to Black and brown people being disproportionately put behind bars,” White wrote in an email to the Daily. 

According to White, the Massachusetts prison population is 54% Black and Latinx, while these demographics only make up 22% of the general population. 

“The Commonwealth has an opportunity and an obligation to ensure that incarcerated eligible voters … are not disenfranchised due to a lack of guidance and leadership on this issue,” Lizz Matos, executive director of Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts, said in the press release. 

In 2018, elly kalfus, a coordinator with the Emancipation Initiative, led a project to find whether or not eligible incarcerated voters are able to vote.

“What we found was that Massachusetts had no system in place, so it was up to volunteers in each county,” kalfus said.

kalfus noted that these volunteers walked sheriffs through the rights of incarcerated individuals who are eligible to vote and how they should ensure that the incarcerated individuals are aware of their rights and have access to ballots. 

The Initiative released a report last year identifying factors that prevent eligible incarcerated people from voting and barriers volunteers face when working with sheriffs departments. The report now guides the work of the coalition. 

This year, the pandemic has added an additional obstacle to putting the report in action, according to kalfus. 

“Because of [COVID-19], almost all the sheriffs have been saying volunteers can’t come in to provide absentee ballot applications or answer questions,” kalfus said. “It’s been a lot harder to try to find out what’s actually going on inside.” 

With Election Day near, the coalition’s statement emphasized that the sheriff’s departments have little time to act. 

“We’re three weeks out from Election Day … this week would be the week to proactively identify any eligible voter who is incarcerated in their county, to provide them proactively with absentee ballot applications, information on the candidates and key deadlines,” Mensik said. 

There are also concerns about the U.S. Postal Service’s ability to transport the ballots of incarcerated individuals. 

“We’re all worried about delays in the mail meaning that our vote isn’t counted this fall, and it’s exacerbated for people who are facing delays of prison mail,” Mensik said. 

According to Mensik, a statewide legal solution is necessary to completely remove these barriers to voting for incarcerated individuals. 

“There are going [to] be a lot of people who we know aren’t going to be able to vote this fall, both because of [COVID-19] and because of the lack of power that we actually have over sheriffs,” Mensik said. “There will be people who our coalition can’t get access to. That’s why it’s so important that there is a legislative fix next session.”

White echoed Mensik’s sentiments by emphasizing that voting is fundamental to democracy and that it is imperative that his clients are able to exercise their right to vote.

“We should always encourage civic engagement. Instead, we discourage it for those who are incarcerated,” White said. 

Mensik said that citizens concerned about this issue should contact their representatives.

“For folks at [Tufts University], tweeting at Sheriff Koutoujian is a great thing to be doing right now,” Mensik said. “I think that he would be responsive to hearing from people in Middlesex County.”