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'Donate Your Vote': Some Mass. Voters Are Casting Ballots On Behalf Of Disenfranchised Prisoners

Eliza Mulcahy opens a folder with letters to her pen pal in prison, whose preferred candidate is Bernie Sanders.  (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Eliza Mulcahy opens a folder with letters to her pen pal in prison, whose preferred candidate is Bernie Sanders. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

On the day of the Democratic presidential debate in South Carolina, Kyle Bryant, who’s serving time at the medium-security prison in Norfolk, was trying to get fellow inmates to tune in. But it was a struggle.

“[People in prison] believe all politicians lie,” he said. “And that [politicians] all make fake promises.”

Debate-watching is just one way Bryant is trying to get other inmates at MCI-Norfolk to think about voting.

“I have to educate them from the ground up,” he said. “I have to go into the backgrounds of the candidates to let them see how each candidate is trying to make a difference.”

Bryant is signing people in prison up for an initiative that gives them a chance to take part in this election and others.

The program, “Donate Your Vote,” pairs people who are incarcerated with people on the outside who agree to vote for whomever their incarcerated counterpart chooses.

One of the organizers is Khadejeh Al-Rijleh. She’s with a group called Emancipation Initiative, which advocates for a “universal prisoner suffrage” and calls for an end to life sentences without parole.

“People in prison had the right to vote stolen from them in 2000,” Al-Rijleh said, referring to the passage of a ballot initiative that took away Massachusetts’ prisoners’ right to vote. “This is a project to creatively re-enfranchise them.”

Bryant spoke with her on the phone on a recent Tuesday afternoon, seeking guidance on how to get others interested in the Donate Your Vote program. The conversation mostly dealt with the usual logistical challenges of getting correspondence in and out of a prison. But one of the biggest challenges, Al-Rijleh told Bryant, is finding enough volunteers to give away their votes.

“I wouldn’t shy away from you encouraging people to sign up,” she said. “Maybe with the caveat that signing up doesn’t necessarily guarantee we’ll be able to match you, but obviously we’ll try to.”

In 2016, organizers say 26 people in prison were paired with people on the outside willing to forfeit their votes. In 2018, there were 140 pairs. Al-Rijleh does not expect to see that many this year.

“It being a presidential election makes people a little bit less willing to donate their vote,” she said. “People value voting in the presidential elections more.”

One person who is willing to let someone else choose the candidate is Eliza Mulcahy from Quincy.

“To this point, I haven’t felt my vote carries much importance,” she said. “But with this program, you can bring hope and power to someone who is struggling for both. And you can bring new importance to your vote.”

Mulcahy’s incarcerated partner was initially pulling for Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

“[Warren] has written back to him when he’s written her about getting DNA from his conviction retested,” Mulcahy explained.

But after a few letter exchanges with Mulcahy, her partner decided to go with  Mulcahy’s preferred candidate: Bernie Sanders.

Sanders seems to be a popular choice because he believes people should retain the right to vote while incarcerated. Other Democratic candidates, like Warren, believe people should get the right to vote restored after they’ve served their time.

“You know, there’s a lot of your rights that are suspended when you’re in prison,” Warren said, answering a question posed via the internet on WMUR last year. “And I’m just not there on that one.”

But for Corey Patterson, also serving time at MCI-Norfolk, people shouldn’t lose the right to vote because of a crime they committed — or may not have committed.

“For us to take away the franchise is sort of like saying that a person is not even a citizen or a human,” he said during a phone interview.

Patterson’s wife is giving up her vote to cast a ballot for him. He’s particularly interested in local elections that could affect prison policies.

“Allow the people who are most impacted by the criminal justice system to have a say in the type of reforms that are being implemented,” Patterson said. “And the best way to do that is by giving us a voice.”

But what if you’ve killed someone? What about that person’s voice? They can no longer vote.

“If it’s really about the victim or the family, then the victim or the family should have a say on whether the prisoner had the right to vote,” Patterson said. “Many victims and families of victims agree that prisoners should have the right to vote.”

The victim’s family in Patterson’s case isn’t one of those families. He’s serving a life sentence for second-degree murder. The mom of the man Patterson killed said Patterson lost his right to vote when he took her son’s life.

Patterson said he respects her decision. He still intends to have his voice heard — even symbolically — in elections. Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled Khadejeh Al-Rijleh’s name. The story has been corrected to reflect the correct spelling. We regret the error.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 WBUR

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