Pioneer Valley Project President Reverend David A. Lewis Sr. and members present data showing an outsized number of voters in Wards 1-4 have been classified as inactive.
Reminder Publishing photo by Sarah Heinonen

SPRINGFIELD — At a press conference on June 13, a small group of community activists from the Pioneer Valley Project presented data that showed a dramatic discrepancy in voter rolls among Springfield residents. Using graphs displayed on three large sign boards, PVP President Reverend David A. Lewis Sr. and a handful of PVP members made a case that residents in city wards 1 through 4 were being disenfranchised through uneven use of the state’s inactive voter system.

In Massachusetts, registered voters may be moved to the inactive list by their municipality if they fail to return their annual street list. This document is also known as a city census, not to be confused with the 10-year federal census that was completed in 2020.

According to the Secretary of the Commonwealth’s office, inactive voters may vote but will need to present a valid driver’s license, state-issued ID card, recent utility bill, rent receipt, lease, a copy of a voter registration affidavit or any other printed identification which contains their name and address. The voter must then fill out an Affirmation of Current and Continuous Residence, after which they will be returned to the active voter rolls. However, if an inactive voter does not cast a ballot in two consecutive biennial state elections, they will be unregistered to vote and must re-register before the next election.

The data presented by the PVP shows that, as of June 6, Ward 1 reflected 5,847 inactive voters, Wards 2 and 3 showed similar numbers, with 5,487 and 5,282 voters, respectively. Ward 4’s inactive voters totaled 3,746. Meanwhile, Wards 5 through 8 totaled just 145 people, with no more than 48 inactive voters in any of these four wards.

As of March 2024, there were 113,051. The 20,362 voters on the inactive rolls represent 18.13% of all registered voters in the city.

In comparison, Holyoke’s seven wards reflect a range of 287 to 596 inactive voters per ward. Similarly, Chicopee had between 317 and 668 inactive voters in each of its nine wards.

Lewis said many people do not know they have been moved to the inactive voters list and have not been alerted prior to arriving to cast their ballots. He asked people to imagine taking public transportation to vote, only to be told that you must return home to retrieve identification you did not know you would need.

At the press conference, Reverend Lindsay Peterson posed several questions, including how long there has been substantial disparities between wards. “Who benefits from this” and “who is harmed?”

PVP drew a connection between the inactive voter rolls and the results of the last three mayoral races, in 2015, 2019 and 2023. In each of the last three mayoral races, wards 5 through 8 have accounted for an increasingly larger portion of Mayor Domenic Sarno’s support, with 63.5% in 2015, 65.4% in 2019 and 69.7% in 2023. The mayor’s support in wards 1 through 4 have fallen by corresponding percentages.

Ward 2 resident Allan Perez publicly appealed to Sarno for an explanation of the information, saying, “These numbers don’t lie, and neither should you.”

PVP sourced its information, in part, from statevoices.com, a nonprofit network of state-level coalitions of advocates and organizers that work to create “a healthy democracy and political power with Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI), and all people of color (BIPOC).” Some of the organizations that partner with the organization in Massachusetts are the Boston Elections Advisory Committee, Raise Up Massachusetts and MassCounts, an organization that works to ensure accurate census data.

Reminder Publishing reached out to the city of Springfield for confirmation of the figures cited by PVP but did not receive a response as of press time.

In an open letter to NAACP President Derrick Johnson, former City Councilor and previous mayoral candidate Justin Hurst said, “I am requesting your immediate attention to the egregious voter suppression that is taking place in our city without regard through a coordinated effort by the current mayor, Domenic Sarno, and his appointed election commissioner, Gladys Oyola.”

He continued, “Considering that Springfield, the third largest city in the Commonwealth is a majority minority city (20.8% African American, 47.5% Latino and 28.9% White), inactivating such a large volume of residents is inevitably going to have an adverse impact on communities of color,” wrote Hurst.

Both the PVP and Hurst called attention to the racial makeup of the wards that have large numbers of inactive voters. “Those same four wards that have been disproportionately impacted reside the highest concentration of Black and Latino residents as well as the most impoverished. In comparison, in wards 5-8 where more affluent and white residents live, only 145 people have been inactivated,” Hurst wrote in his letter.

Hurst went on to say Bishop Talbert Swan, the president of the Springfield NAACP branch, “receives hundreds of thousands of dollars from the mayor, he is essentially purchased and can never adequately advocate on behalf of the members on any issue that is a direct indictment on the mayor.”

Swan disputed Hurst’s assertions. Writing his own letter to Johnson, Swan said, “Justin’s accusaions against me are categorically false and a direct attempt to exact vengeance because I refused to publicly endorse him in the mayoral election. Justin’s campaign publicly slandered me for a solid year leading up to the elecion and his family’s monthly newspaper, the Point of View, slandered me, the branch, and others in the Black community who refused to be bullied into endorsing his campaign. Unfortunately, during his quest to be elected mayor, Justin pushed for the NAACP to make public statements that would be critical of Mayor Sarno to influence voters.”

Swan said he has been in touch with PVP on the inactive voter issue and “it was not in the purview of the branch to weigh in on the matter at this time.”

Lewis urged residents to advocate for an explanation from the mayor. “Voting is our right,” he said. “It’s how the community voices how it feels.”

For more information about inactive voters, or to check a resident’s voter status, visit tinyurl.com/bdaapxrt.