A Pattern of Voting Rights Violations in MA

(Disclosure: I am a volunteer on John Bonifaz’s campaign)

The Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division has a What’s New page.  If you go there now, you’ll see five recent enforcement actions listed; one of those five is the consent decree signed with the City of Boston last year.  The Civil Rights Division went to court only three times in 2005 for violations of section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, and brought only five cases under the minority language provision.  Of a total of seven cases under the Voting Rights Act in 2005, Boston’s was the only one that fell in both categories.  Boston joined a handful of jurisdictions in the country where the conduct of elections is monitored by Federal observers.

Regular readers of Blue Mass Group are probably aware of a myriad of voting rights problems in the City of Boston.  For example:

  • On the elections division web site, you can download “the state representative districts set forth in the remedial plan approved on April 16, 2004, by the United States District Court in the case of Black Political Task Force, et al v. William Francis Galvin, C.A. #02-11190-DPW, as being in compliance with the Voting Rights Act and the United States Constitution.”

  • Almost exactly a year ago, Blue Mass Group covered voter challenges in Allston in the 18th Suffolk Special election – something the state’s elections division never stepped in to address, as far as I am aware.

I have my own story of poor election practices by Boston, which changed the result of a Democratic State Committee election in 2004 by not counting write-in votes at all.

But in case you think this is limited to just one city, the DoJ case points to problems throughout our state.  This Sunday, the Boston Globe published a story about a Justice Department voting rights investigation in Lowell, concerning poor accomodation of linguistic minorities.  This is the same issue the DoJ sued Boston for, and it’s also what they’re already investigating in Springfield – where, according to a nonpartisan survey, “nearly one in 10 eligible voters could not vote on his or her first attempt” in 2004.  And then there’s that mess in Lawrence, which is reportedly also getting Federal attention.  As the Globe reported,

The Lowell investigation, confirmed by a Justice Department spokesman this past week, is the fourth recent probe into alleged voting rights violations in Massachusetts city elections. Other cities targeted by the Justice Department are Springfield, Lawrence, and Boston, which entered into a consent decree


Last fall, the Justice Department announced it would send federal observers to monitor the November elections in Boston, Lowell, and 14 other communities across the country.

So out of 16 “communities across the country” they’re sending federal observers to this November, two are in Massachusetts.  What’s happening to elections in our state??

John Bonifaz, running for Secretary of the Commonwealth against incumbent William Galvin, noted Galvin’s pattern of saying he’s “not aware” of voting rights problems until after the DoJ gets involved.  “It remains bewildering to me how the secretary of state’s office seems unaware of these investigations,” said Bonifaz. “I don’t think we should have to rely upon the Bush Justice Department to enforce the Voting Rights Act in Massachusetts. I think we should have a secretary of state who is being proactive and ensuring that the Voting Rights Act is being enforced around Massachusetts.”

The Globe article led to a small flurry of blog posts in the past couple of days, including David Swanson on dailykos (DOJ Confirms Voting Rights Violations in Massachusetts) and a post on Democratic Underground titled, Why John Bonifaz Needs to be Secretary of State for Massachusetts.  But these are national blogs.  Here in Massachusetts, the issue is getting scant attention.  It’s well past time for us to start asking, where is our Elections Division?  Why must the state of Massachusetts rely on the Bush Justice Department to protect our voting rights?

P.S. If you think this issue is worthy of attention, please recommend this post on dailykos)

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3 Comments . Leave a comment below.
  1. Excellent Post!

    Cos, thanks for noting this. I'd be interested in any comment you get from anyone: please post here if you find anything more. More generally, do you think MA really is among the worst states in this regard, or that the DoJ has some reason for focusing their attention here.

    • That's my question too.

      do you think MA really is among the worst states in this regard, or that the DoJ has some reason for focusing their attention here

      As has been widely reported, the folks making the decisions at the DoJ voting rights section are now the Bush political appointees, a dramatic change from the past when career folks tended to set the agenda.  (Because, oh, I don't know, they knew what they were doing?)  And I suspect that those political folk would see a lot of value in demonstrating that "voting rights problems aren't just for red states anymore."  The more they can say that Massachusetts disenfranchises voters too, the easier it is to fend off criticism that they're ignoring serious problems elsewhere that, if uncorrected, help Republicans. 

      None of which is to say that there aren't serious problems here that need to be addressed.  But I'm extremely skeptical that anything the Bush DoJ - particularly the voting rights section - does is being done for the right reasons.

    • comparing to other states

      I don't think MA is one of the worst states when it comes to voting rights, but sadly, I also know it's not one of the best, either.  It's hard to compare based purely on DoJ investigations, because the Bush Justice Department hasn't been nearly as agressive as it should be, IMO, in pursuing some very serious violations - for example, when political appointees overruled Justice Dept lawyers about Texas' redistricting.

      The high level of investigations in MA may actually be a good sign, in that it means we have organizations here advocating for voters' rights, collecting the data, and bringing matters to the attention of the DOJ.  But it's certainly a bad sign as far as our elections division goes: these are things the MA elections division should've acted on before they reached the level of DOJ investigations!  Compared to some other states, this could mean their Secretaries of State or more on the ball.  Compared to other states, it may mean they have worse problems but not enough advocacy around those problems, so nobody's doing anything about it.

      I've done a lot of election reform work and election volunteering around the country in the past few years, and there are some states I think are much worse (such as Florida) and some I think are much better (such as Wisconsin and Maine).  But what does that say about us?  What does that say about the Democratic party as a vehicle for, you know, democracy?  We're the bluest of the blue.  We should be at the forefront!

      The fact that some states are doing much worse, doesn't make me feel any better about this.  We suck, and there's no reason why we should suck.  We need to shape up our state's elections.

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