Constitutional Convention Debates

Constitutional Convention Floor Debates

Black: Narrator

Red: Oppose the constitutional amendment = pro-voting rights for incarcerated people

Green: Support the constitutional amendment = anti-voting rights for incarcerated people 

July 29, 1998 Constitutional Convention

SPEAKERS: Swan, Cuomo, Businger, Frost, Magnani, Jehlen, Gauch, Tarr, Nuciforo, Fagan, Marini, Rushing, McManus.

 Senate President Thomas Birmingham convened the joint session at 2pm. PRISONERS…….The question came on agreeing to a proposed amendment denying the right to vote to prisoners.

Rep. Swan offered an amendment relative to a study of the constitutional amendment.

REP. SWAN: We have not taken away the right to vote. We usually add people. Four years ago, I mentioned that I came from a frame of reference different from most of you. The thought of disenfranchising any portion of the population I find strange. The issue here is so very serious and important. The issue of disenfranchising I find very difficult to rationalize. My grandfather was born a slave. He could not vote. During the civil rights era, I risked life and limb seeking the right to vote. It is difficult to conceptualize taking voting rights away. I find it abhorrent that we would vote to take away the franchise rights of individuals, the right to vote, especially in this election year. I move that we refer this to a special committee and review the constitutional ramifications.

REP. CUOMO: I rise in opposition to this amendment. This legislation is an initiative sponsored by my predecessor from North Andover. This deserves the public’s attention. I hope they can determine this. We need to vote on constitutional changes twice, and then let the public’s voice be heard. This has been around for 10 years.

REP. BUSINGER: I want to repeat what I said yesterday. This issue doesn’t even have a favorable report from the Committee on Election Laws. If you read the calendar, the committee doesn’t think this should pass. Here we’re dealing with an issue that shouldn’t be on the calendar. The leadership has great control over that. Someone decided this should be on here. If we should debate this, why aren’t the rest of our amendments on here? Unlike the two previous matters, the committee didn’t report on this. We should study this so there is a recommendation. It is a shame that this was allowed to get here. We should have had a debate over whether this should be on the calendar. Our constitution has been around for a long time. Here we’re fiddling with it because they want a headline. If you respect the committee, you will note they didn’t report on it. We should ask them to report on this. Let’s adhere to our usual procedure, not because it is a whim of the moment.

REP. FROST: Yesterday we heard many comments about abuses of the past. This isn’t about race or religion. This is about people who have committed crimes, who have taken away the rights of others. Murderers have taken the voting rights of their victim. They forfeited their rights in cases of murder. I hope the motion doesn’t pass.

SEN. MAGNANI: I don’t think there’s anyone that this issue will affect a particular election or policy. But we must discuss if this is the right thing to do. We incarcerate people to protect public safety. That’s the primary reason for incarceration. I’m not sure if anyone would suggest that this bill was filed as a deterrence measure. People won’t stop and think they might lose their right to vote. What we know is that 95 percent of prisoners will eventually reach the streets. Does this initiative increase public safety? I would suggest not. We’re left with all of the rationale, they deserve. Anything we can do to punish people we should do. If you argue that, the implication is that we get on our knees and pray for what we deserve. So we are left for a simple rationale ­ political expediency that challenges our consciences. I hope this amendment is adopted.

REP. JEHLEN: I would like to read to you from a Globe editorial. It says that prisoners were detained because they had political material. This is laughable, what the governor submitted. It addresses nothing. The governor’s found a whipping boy. Everything that helps reintroduction has been cut. If the governor was concerned about public safety, he would remember they will someday come out.

REP. GAUCH: If the governor is so bad, why is the crime rate down.

REP. JEHLEN: The crime rate is down all across the country. The economy probably has something to do with it. I would point out this is a frivolous sound­bite amendment.

SEN. TARR: I hope this blatant attempt to sidestep the process is rejected. There have been suggestions that there has not been proper consideration. I remind members that this measure has to pass this convention, the next one, and then the voters, who are the ultimate arbiters. It wasn’t long ago that we adopted legislation that said a fundamental right, guaranteed by the constitution, the right to carry a gun, would be restricted for criminals. They have said they don’t respect the law. Speakers have mentioned bullies look at this list of people who would lose their voting rights ­ murderers, drug dealers. This is not a measure that attacks them, but says you cannot be at the same table as others.

SEN. NUCIFORO: This was reported out ‘ought not to pass’ because the time to review this expired. We are talking about a constitutional amendment. There are many questions. Are we out of line with the federal amendment? Is this the right place to address this? It was offered as a floor amendment. I would urge all of you to support this motion to study these questions so we don’t make any mistakes we might regret.

REP. FAGAN: The reason that we have a constitution is to protect people. Once we start to tear apart the constitution, where do we end? What are we afraid of? Is a prisoner going to get a constituency and defeat the governor? We’ve passed enough laws to make anyone a criminal. This constitution has served us so well for 200 years.

REP. MARINI: I filed this in January of 1997. Governor Cellucci didn’t file this, I did. The committee never did anything with it. Now they want another couple of years to look at it. At least the prior speaker had the courage to stand up here and oppose my bill. These are prisoners we find so despicable that we have taken away their rights to run their own lives. It is your right to let prisoners affect the lives of others. You should know that you do not amend the Constitution today. Another legislature must review this, and then the public must. We are trying to block their ability to review this? People who oppose this measure know the public will approve this. We should vote for this main question, and then let the people decide.

On a voice vote, the motion failed. Rep. Businger doubted the vote and asked for a standing vote. The motion failed on a 18­29 standing vote. Rep. Businger further doubted the vote and moved that a roll call be taken. There was not enough support.

The clerk then began calling the roll on the main question of agreeing to the amendment.

REP. RUSHING ran down to the rostrum, yelling, where’s the debate?

He spoke briefly to Majority Leader Nagle and then left the well. The roll call continued.


Rep. Rushing moved consideration. Majority Leader Norton said debate would be limited to 15 minutes total.

REP. RUSHING: I move reconsideration for one reason ­ I cannot believe that we would adopt a proposal to amend the Constitution without a debate on that main question. That is what we did. We had debate on technical matters. We are about to do something we have never done before ­ take away from a group of citizens the right to vote. It is against our history. We have always expanded that right. We have included religions, races, women. Some of you believe voting is a privilege. The whole history has been to move away from that to a right. They said some people were not qualified to vote, and required qualifications. Rep. Kaufman rose to relinquish his time to Rep. Rushing, who continued, We have seen voting as a right. In that, we have, for long period of time, included people who are incarcerated. What is the problem? What have these people done to endanger us by voting? No one has said that. Who are we talking about here? We are talking about people who think we must increase the punishment for people who are incarcerated. There are two reasons people should be able to vote. People who commit larceny over $250 will lose their vote. Sen. Nuciforo yielded his time. Rep. Rushing continued, Losing the right to vote disconnects people from society. Most will not take advantage of that. But for the people who want to be rehabilitated, we would deprive them of that. How does this punishment help? This punishment only helps people who want more punishment. There are better ways to do this. We don’t need to challenge voting as a right to increase punishments. I urge members to consider the implications of this amendment if it should pass.

REP. MCMANUS: I am troubled. The Constitution is a contract between citizens and their government. Our rights are for the times when government is intent on taking away our liberties. What is wrong with letting someone who is incarcerated vote? Only if there are so many people in jail that they can affect the vote does it matter, and then that tells you about the society. To say someone can’t vote, even if they are on appeal? It makes no sense. It will not affect government. Rep. Kahn yielded her time. Rep. McManus continued, What about people who are incarcerated because of civil disobedience? How can they change laws they believe are wrong if they can’t vote? That’s why this is in the constitution. The writers didn’t want soldiers to take your property, or incarcerate you so that you could not vote.


JUNE 28, 2000 Constitutional Convention

SPEAKERS: Creem, Marini, Magnani, Swan, Peterson, Balser, Glodis, Frost, Jehlen.

 CONVENES. The Constitutional Convention convened at 2:10 pm, Senate President Thomas Birmingham presiding…PRISONER VOTING: Question came on agreeing to a Constitutional amendment relative to voting rights for incarcerated persons. The amendment was agreed to at a Constitutional Convention of the 1997­1998 Legislature.

SEN. CREEM: I rise in opposition to this measure that strips prisoners of a basic civil right. I do so because public policy should be made to forward the public good, not because it sounds good. What we will do here today will not benefit the people of the Commonwealth. Like the death penalty, stripping prisoners of their right to vote is nothing more than another means of punishment. Punishment is important, but it isn’t the only reason we put criminals in prison. It has become fashionable to ignore rehabilitation, but it is an essential part of prison. We teach prisoners how to read, we teach them job skills, we teach them to be better parents. Why do we do this? So when they re­enter society, they will hopefully become productive citizens. That is an admirable goal. If that is our goal, I am proud to live in one of only three states that treats prisoners like citizens. But many want to take a step backward. This will not reduce crime. This will not make elections cleaner or protect our political system. Fear of prisoners’ political clout is ridiculous. What we are doing accomplishes nothing of real benefit. I believe this has serious negative repercussions. By stripping this right now, we make it less likely that a prisoner will vote when they are released. And the fact that the majority of the people who will lose this right are minorities should also bring us pause. Minority communities will only suffer with passage of this. If we pass this measure, we are sending a message that voting is unimportant and that other rights can be denied. There are 5,000 military veterans in Massachusetts prisons. They have risked their lives for us and now we want to punish them again. This is the wrong message for this Legislature to send. I urge my colleagues to vote against this short­sighted measure.

REP. MARINI: I’ll be brief. This amendment allows the people of Massachusetts to vote in November to amend their Constitution to prohibit felons from participating in elections. This does not take away the civil right forever. It does not take it away while on parole or probation, only when you are in prison, convicted in felony. There is no more important right than one’s liberty. These people we are talking about, we have decided they are deserving to be deprived of their liberty. We decide when they get up and when they go to bed. We decide that, but some people think we should let them participate in deciding how we will govern ourselves. They are incapable of running their own lives. Forty­seven states prohibit voting. My common sense tells me we are in the wrong. We won’t let these people run their own life. They should not be allowed to run ours. Let the people of Massachusetts decide.

SEN. MAGNANI: I hope the amendment is not agreed to. The Department of Corrections provides public safety. We also provide some kind of rehabilitation. And we suggest that perhaps if someone goes to prison, it is a deterrent. Let’s take those reasons one at a time and see if this measure adds to those objectives. Does it add to public safely? I’m not sure. No one has argued that this enhances public safety. Rehabilitation? Only 5 percent of prisoners take advantage of this right? We’re leaving 95 percent out of the process. Simple common sense suggests that if 5 percent participate, they will be more committed to a civil society. The third reason is punishment. Think about that. Do you know of anyone who goes out and says I won’t commit this murder because I might lose my right to vote. That’s the quality of logic backing this amendment. We are trying to encourage our young people to participate. If we do this today, the Legislature will be the first Legislature to take away someone’s right to vote. That’s the kind of history we are establishing. Let’s have good judgement.

REP. SWAN: I rise in opposition. You’ve heard much of my argument. Who is bothered now by the fact that felons have the right to vote? Who is being hurt? The gentleman said 47 states prohibit prisoner voting. He wanted to know if they are all wrong? Yes. Having a wrong law in the majority does not suggest that we follow suit. Our history shows that we have historically expanded voting rights. This is an attempt to disenfranchise people. There are those who believe that somehow a vote in favor is a vote in favor of being tough on crime. I beg to differ. You have people who are incarcerated now, and this offers a glimmer of life. There is little in the way of rehabilitation taking place in the penal system. I still ask ­ who in this body feels that they are being pained as a result of people voting in prison? I don’t think anyone can say they know anyone, some area of our society, is being hurt. This is a negative procedure to engage in and I would not like to see us go backward.

REP. PETERSON: I hope the amendment moves forward. The senator from Framingham said we have not disenfranchised anyone. Under the current statues, anyone convicted of election fraud is banned from voting. We have done it already. What we’re saying is that right now if you commit murder, you will still have your right to vote. We want to take that away, and restore it when they are returned to society.

REP. BALSER: Today may be one of the saddest days in our history. I welcome the Senate to this chamber and I ask you to put your attention to the room where it says milestones on the road to freedom. Will there be a picture added today? I learn from the minority leader that 47 states have already done this. Since when does Massachusetts follow? We seek to expand rights. Just as we have not followed in the death penalty, we have stood firm. We stand for human rights. I urge my colleagues to oppose this and maintain our heritage as a state that defends the freedoms of all citizens.

SEN. GLODIS: This is the cradle of liberalism, not the cradle of liberty. I don’t understand this, but that’s maybe why we have our reputation. What about the victims’ rights? People think they know what’s best. As someone who has worked in a penal institution, I can tell you some prisoners don’t deserve the right to vote. I hope this amendment passes.

REP. FROST: I hope this amendment passes. I couldn’t agree with my senator any more. Some people say this about public safety. But this is an issue about justice. This is about what these prisoners have taken away from their victims. Why don’t they deserve to have their own freedoms revoked? They shouldn’t be allowed to decide how we are to be governed.

REP. JEHLEN: This reminds me of flag burning. Congress decided it had more burning issues than flag burning and declined to amend the Constitution. This is not a problem. Four prisoners voted in Somerville during the last election. This is a solution in search of a problem. Prisoners do not forfeit their rights. They have speech, religion and cruel and unusual punishment. Our problem is getting people to vote, not keeping from them from voting. When we start addressing problems, we’ll have more people voting.


[1] Source: State House News service summaries.