Registering Voters—in Jail

By Colleen Kirby
LWV of Arlington and LWVMA Criminal Justice Reform Legislative Specialist

At noon on Aug. 29, Mary Cummings and I, from LWV Arlington, and BallotsOverBars member Elly Kalfus, met up with Brendan Kennedy of the Middlesex Sheriff’s Office in the Middlesex Jail and House of Corrections main office. After turning in our drivers’ licenses and going through security screening, we took the bus to the main facility. Inside a classroom we waited for our first group of seven men who were awaiting trial to come in and fill out absentee ballot request forms. In Massachusetts, if a person is held in custody, he does not have to be a registered voter in order to request a ballot because the state knows his identity. Most of the men were already registered to vote, but two filled out registration forms.

One was very excited to be requesting a ballot. He told us this was his first time ever voting, and he was 52. After these men returned to their living pods, three men who were serving time in the House of Corrections for misdemeanor offenses came in to fill out their absentee ballot requests. We were able to answer questions about choosing a ballot, whether for Republican, Democratic or Libertarian primary candidates.

For the ten people voting, their ballot requests had to be returned to nine different town clerks. As the primary election was fast approaching, Mary went home to fax ballot requests to five towns, while Elly and I drove to election offices in Billerica, Tewksbury, Boston and Cambridge before they closed to make sure the forms were properly processed in time. In one case, although the individual had requested a ballot for one party, he was sent a ballot for a different party since he was already registered in that party. John Howard, the education director for the Sheriff’s Office, was able to have him change his party affiliation for the future, though it was too late for this primary. Another town clerk did not honor the request for a ballot since there was no record of that individual having lived in the town.

We are trying to set up another date to go to the Middlesex Jail and House of Corrections before the general election with enough time to follow up with any problem ballot requests. At least nine of these 10 individuals should be set to vote in the general election if they are still in custody, but there are over 900 other eligible individuals, many being held pending trial, we could assist if they are interested in voting in November.