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Published — October 19, 2020

In Massachusetts, removing barriers to voting boosts turnout

But local disparities and felony disenfranchisement disproportionately stand in the way of voters of color. 


Offer people more ways to cast their ballot, make it easier and more convenient, and a lot more people will vote. That’s the simple formula that advocates say has worked in Massachusetts.

Now they’d like to see temporary changes made to accommodate concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic become permanent, and for the state to adopt more innovative proposals, such as a ranked-choice voting system that’s on the November ballot.

“Massachusetts has made a lot of progress in our voting laws,” said Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts. “We’ve made a couple of big strides that have helped engage more voters.”

Wilmot said that the state’s adoption of early voting and other reforms in 2014, followed by a series of measures approved this summer to make absentee balloting accessible to everyone, “made a huge impact.”

“We had record participation in the primary, almost more than quadruple what it was in 2016,” she said. More than 1.7 million ballots were cast, an all-time high, and the turnout percentage was the best the state had seen in 30 years.

But some obstacles to voting remain and can disproportionately impact Black and Latino voters. The number and location of early voting sites and absentee ballot drop boxes, for example, is for the most part left to the discretion of local cities and towns. And once among the most liberal in the country in allowing people convicted of felonies to vote, the state reversed course slightly in 2000 with a change to its constitution that disenfranchised them while they’re in prison.  

While there is still more work to do, Wilmot described the state’s gradual improvements to voting access as the politics of “inertia, not intent.”

“It’s not like the office is purposely trying to disenfranchise voters or take them off the rolls,” as has happened in other states, she said. “They really are committed to a voter-participation model.”

Here’s a look at some of the most significant barriers to voting rights and access in Massachusetts and how state officials are confronting them: 

Absentee ballots

Massachusetts enacted a series of temporary measures due to the COVID-19 pandemic this summer that voting rights advocates hope to make permanent.

The state expanded its window for early voting, is allowing any voter to cast an absentee ballot without an excuse and mailed absentee ballot applications to every voter. Due to concerns about U.S. Postal Service delays, it will accept ballots received as late as three days after the election if a postmark or other evidence shows it was mailed by Election Day.

“The reform this summer is only limited to 2020. So we have a lot of work to expand it beyond that,” Wilmot said.

Local disparities

Structural inequality can put up barriers to voting access for people of color in Massachusetts, even as state officials make the process easier.

“Lack of access to reliable mail means voting by mail is not easy. Lack of a computer means online voter registration is not easily accessible,” Wilmot said. “There is inequality of access … because of inequality in the rest of the system.”

Massachusetts doesn’t have the inconsistency in polling place location access that other states have, though, and the state requires that they serve roughly equal numbers of voters. 

Even with those rules in place, Wilmot said there have been long lines at polls in predominantly Black communities when there is a big general election. She hopes that the expansion of early voting and absentee ballots this year will alleviate that problem. 

The state leaves it up to local officials to determine the number and location of early voting locations (other than mandating at least one in each city and town). And it’s a similar situation with the secure drop boxes for absentee ballots that have been deployed this year. They’re allowed under a new state law but not required.

There’s no requirement that either be equitably deployed according to race, ethnicity or other neighborhood demographics.

Felony disenfranchisement

Massachusetts has one of the most progressive approaches in the country to felony disenfranchisement. Voting rights are only taken away while someone is imprisoned, and those rights are restored automatically upon release. 

Some states take away those rights permanently for certain felony convictions. Others maintain the ban on voting during parole, and some require an expensive and onerous process for reinstatement.

But voting rights advocates are pressing to reverse the constitutional amendment passed in 2000 that put the prison voting ban in place. If successful, Massachusetts would join Maine, Vermont and Washington, D.C., in having virtually no restrictions on voting based on criminal convictions or imprisonment.

Even without that change, advocates say the state needs to educate people so they understand their rights are automatically restored after release from prison. They also want to ensure that people held temporarily in county jails understand they have the right to vote and are given that opportunity by local officials

Ranked-choice voting

If voters approve a statewide referendum this November, Massachusetts will join Maine in enacting a ranked-choice election system. Voters’ second and third choices would be factored in automatically should no candidate win 50% of the vote.

In 2018, for example, Democrat Jared Golden unseated Maine 2nd District Congressman Bruce Poliquin under the ranked-choice system. Poliquin led narrowly after “first choice” votes were tallied but didn’t reach 50%. When the second-choice votes of people who had backed third-party candidates in the race were then allocated to the two leading candidates, Golden won.

“I think it’s a good option for reducing the negativity in political campaigns and giving voters more choices without making it strategic in how they have to think about a vote, allowing people to pick their first choice, second choice, without hurting someone they like second best,” Wilmot said. 

If the system had been in place in 2000, the country could have been spared 20 years of people lamenting Ralph Nader’s role as a spoiler in the Bush vs. Gore presidential election.

“We need more people running for office, not less, and no one should be pressured to not run or drop out because they’re taking votes away from a more popular candidate,” Wilmot said. “Ranked choice voting gets rid of all of that.”

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