Ballots Over Bars
Those most impacted by a problem are closest to the solution. So, it is a cruel irony that in this age of “Smart on Crime” rhetoric about “right-sizing” the criminal justice system, millions of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people are legally barred from participating in elections, preventing them from holding accountable the elected officials who are supposed to represent them. From 1792 to 2000, as a majority of states across the United States passed criminal disenfranchisement laws, Massachusetts remained one of the few states which allowed incarcerated people to vote, except those convicted of election fraud. However, after a group of lifers in MCI-Norfolk prison formed the Massachusetts Prisoners Association Political Action Committee (MPAPAC), the people of Massachusetts amended the constitution, disenfranchising all people incarcerated for felonies for the duration of their prison sentence.
In 2016, we started Ballots Over Bars, a campaign to raise awareness about criminal disenfranchisement in Massachusetts, in collaboration with two incarcerated people and the Emancipation Initiative. Incarcerated people have named criminal disenfranchisement as one of the major injustices they face, and incarcerated people have been fighting for their voting rights in Massachusetts for more than 40 years. We partnered 20 enfranchised free-world people with 20 disenfranchised incarcerated people in Massachusetts, asking the free-world people to vote in accordance with the incarcerated people’s wishes and in the process form a relationship. We then sent sample ballots to the additional 140 incarcerated people we were not able to match. Through a combination of archival investigation, oral history and survey analysis, we are collaboratively bringing to life the history of incarcerated people’s fight for the right to vote in Massachusetts, with the goal of returning the right to vote to every resident.
Major aims of project
- Educate people about the history of criminal disenfranchisement in Massachusetts and prisoners’ powerful acts of resistance and organizing
- Maximize voting power of enfranchised people incarcerated in Massachusetts jails and houses of corrections, civilly committed people, and recently released people by holding know-your-rights events, supplying access to absentee ballots, and ensuring voter registrars comply with the law and count incarcerated ballots
- Maximize voting power of disenfranchised prisoners in Massachusetts through donate-your-vote partnerships and build relationships across prison walls
- End prison gerrymandering, which transfers representation from people of color in urban areas to white people in rural areas
- Repeal the 120th Amendment to the Massachusetts Constitution, adopted in 2000, which denies people incarcerated in prison for felonies the right to vote
Rachel Corey and Elly Kalfus come from penal abolition organizing and criminal justice research backgrounds. We were inspired to start this campaign by the decades of work incarcerated people have done to resist the penal state and build political power inside. We seek to raise awareness of the history of criminal disenfranchisement in Massachusetts and challenge it – although it only came to pass in 2000, many Massachusetts residents take for granted that Massachusetts has never allowed people in prison to vote.
While criminal disenfranchisement has many far-reaching negative consequences, we want to call particular attention to the issue of prison gerrymandering. Prison gerrymandering occurs when the state counts disenfranchised incarcerated people as residents of the town where they are incarcerated, rather than where they consider home (typically where they were living pre-incarceration or where they plan to live upon release), for purposes of drawing up election districts and the federal census. Because federal law requires that legislative districts each contain approximately the same population, including adults who cannot vote in this count inflates rural and suburban, primarily white, towns’ electoral representation and takes political power and federal funds away from residents of urban areas, where most people are incarcerated from. In Massachusetts, each state representative district is supposed to contain 39,862 people, plus or minus 1,984 people. However, five districts in Massachusetts have significantly smaller populations, and would cease to exist if the disenfranchised prison population were not included in the district.  Massachusetts could follow the leadership of states such as Maryland and New York in ending prison gerrymandering.
Ballots Over Bars started in the summer of 2016, a few months before election day. We mailed letters to people we knew incarcerated in Massachusetts prisons asking if they wanted to vote by proxy through a free-world person and received letters of interest from about 160 incarcerated people. We struggled to sign up as many free-world people, and ended up forming about 20 matches between free-world and incarcerated people. Our project was explicitly framed as a “donate-your-vote” – while we encouraged free-world and incarcerated matches to discuss who they wanted to vote for and why, due to the immense privilege free-world people have, we wanted the decision to ultimately reside with the incarcerated partner.
We mailed sample ballots to the remaining disenfranchised people who expressed interest informing them that although we could not match them in time, we still wanted to know how they would have voted. We have received about 28 returned ballots, which we plan to analyze in a report examining the voting preferences of people in Massachusetts prisons and how local elections would have been affected were people in prisons allowed to vote. Additionally, we have compiled a timeline of the history of criminal disenfranchisement in Massachusetts, archival records on MPAPAC and the fight for incarcerated voting rights, and more. We intend to supplement this data with oral history interviews of people involved in the fight for incarcerated voting rights. We envision a world where every resident of Massachusetts can vote and people are able to hold their elected officials accountable.
If you would like to find out more about our project, please visit our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/BallotsOverBars/
You can find more materials on the other tabs on this page.
If you would like to get involved, please message us through our facebook page or e-mail Elly at Elly.Kalfus [@] gmail.com
 Prison Policy Initiative, Importing Constituents: Prisoners and Political Clout in Massachusetts _Overviewhttps://www.prisonersofthecensus.org/ma/report.html
Demos, Implementing Reform: How Maryland & New York Ended Prison Gerrymandering http://www.demos.org/publication/implementing-reform-how-maryland-new-york-ended-prison-gerrymandering
*You can download this page as PDF here: Ballots Over Bars Overview