To protect our democracy, vote with your whole ballot
By ACLU of Massachusetts staff
In the past two years, we have witnessed a coordinated, nationwide attempt to sabotage the machinery of our democracy and undermine the very principles on which free and fair elections are based. The most infamous and spectacular example was, of course, the January 6 assault at the Capitol—but it's important to consider the more mundane, procedural ways in which this movement seeks to dismantle our democratic institutions. In doing so, we can learn how to exercise the full power of our ballots during the upcoming elections.
The leaders of today’s anti-democratic movement are working to chip away at foundational components of our electoral system—components that, until now, have been uncontroversial: precincts, election boards, and poll workers. This is also why we should all be concerned that the Supreme Court is willing to entertain formerly fringe theories about the certification of election results.
But let’s be clear: We can still fight for our rights—starting in our communities, and at the ballot box. If our opponents are determined to take democracy apart piece-by-piece, we need to learn how to defend each of those pieces. More importantly, we need to learn how to use every part of our democracy—every elected office—to protect and expand civil liberties in the face of these devastating attacks. Voters have the power to send a message to elected officials about what we value and what we want them to prioritize—just as Kansas voters recently did when they defeated a measure that would have stripped the right to abortion from their state constitution.
Massachusetts voters need to pay special attention to down-ballot races in the primary and general election this fall. To illustrate this, let’s look at three key down-ballot races that often go unnoticed but can play major roles in making our democracy stronger.
District Attorney (DA)
District attorneys are the most powerful figures in the criminal legal system; they oversee the prosecution of criminal cases, deciding who gets charged with what, and whether defendants are treated fairly. Organizations like the ACLU have worked hard in recent years to shine a spotlight on this crucial position, emphasizing the ways district attorneys can prioritize values like equity and racial justice over punishment and retribution. And as attacks on our democracy and our civil liberties intensify, DAs can play a crucial role by refusing to enforce unjust laws like abortion bans, classroom censorship laws, and more.
Sheriffs also hold tremendous power within the criminal legal system, overseeing county jails and houses of correction, which accounts for half of Massachusetts’ incarcerated population. That includes living conditions, like access to addiction treatment and mental health services, as well as educational, vocational, and transitional programs to ensure people re-enter their communities in a positive way. And, as voting rights are increasingly threatened, sheriffs can ensure that incarcerated people have access to the ballot. Despite all this, most Massachusetts voters don’t even know who their sheriff is. That’s why we launched the Know Your Sheriff campaign this year, and why we’re hoping more people cast a vote for this crucial office this fall.
The Governor’s Council is an obscure but highly important body that provides “advice and consent” on pardons and commutations, as well as gubernatorial appointments like judges and members of parole board, to name just a few. As the federal judiciary grows ever more extreme, the careful vetting of judges on issues like abortion is essential for members of the Governor’s Council. In addition, the council’s role in rectifying racial injustice through pardons and commutations is pivotal, especially because commuted sentences in Massachusetts are rare.
The movement that sparked January 6 is determined to attack the nuts and bolts of our civil society, to leverage every fringe legal theory and elected office possible to destroy our civil liberties. In response, we need to be equally attentive, equally creative, and equally fervent in our defense of democracy, and in our pursuit of liberty and justice for all. The first tool in this fight is the ballot; let’s make sure we use it well.