Sanders: Prisoners Should Vote

As many states contemplate restoring voting rights to felons who have completed their sentence, a leading Democrat wants to go further.

Monopoly board Go Directly to Jail with car and hotel
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As many states contemplate restoring voting rights to felons who have completed their sentence, Senator Bernie Sanders thinks we should go much further and allow them to vote while incarcerated.

While Iowa struggles on whether to restore voting rights to felons who have completed their prison sentences, Sen. Bernie Sanders said people convicted of felonies should never lose access to the ballot box in the first place.

At a town hall meeting in Muscatine’s West Middle School gymnasium Saturday, the Vermont senator was asked whether the imprisoned should have the right to vote. Only his home state and Maine allow felons to vote from behind bars.

“I think that is absolutely the direction we should go,” he said.

While most states disenfranchise felons, Sanders said the convicted still have a right to participate in elections. “In my state, what we do is separate. You’re paying a price, you committed a crime, you’re in jail. That’s bad,” he said. “But you’re still living in American society and you have a right to vote. I believe in that, yes, I do.”

Des Moines Register, “In Iowa, Bernie Sanders says states should allow felons to vote from behind bars”

In this regard, Sanders stands out from his closest ideological rival in the race.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren was asked about the issue during a recent forum on rural issues in Storm Lake. She said felons who have served their time deserve the franchise. But Warren stopped short of saying those in prison should be able to vote.

“While they’re incarcerated, I think that’s something we can have more conversation about,” she said.

While it seems obvious that taxpaying citizens who have paid their debt to society ought to have their voting rights restored, it’s a harder call for those still serving their sentence. Not only have they failed to live up to their basic obligations as citizens but it’s simply not true that they are “still living in American society.” Indeed, the whole point of incarceration is to separate them from society.

At the local level, the effects of this could be bizarre, indeed. A small community that houses a penitentiary could theoretically have its affairs governed by the inmates.

From the standpoint of politicians, this unfortunately tends not to be a discussion about human rights or philosophy but rather one of partisan advantage. Because those serving felony sentences are disproportionately black and Hispanic, and those groups vote overwhelmingly for Democrats, support for even the restoration of rights for those who have paid their debt breaks down along party lines.

FILED UNDER: Bernie Sanders, Campaign 2020, Crime, Elizabeth Warren, Race and Politics, US Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    a leading Democrat wants to go further.

    Quibble: Bernie Sanders is not a Democrat.

  2. James Joyner says:

    @OzarkHillbilly: Well, it’s complicated. He claims to be an “independent” as a Senator and a “Democrat” as a presidential contender. He says he’ll sign the “affirmation pledge” now required to do the latter. But, really, it’s beside the point: he’s a frontrunner for the Democratic Presidential nomination.

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  3. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @James Joyner:

    But, really, it’s beside the point

    Actually, it is the point. Every time he runs for office he runs in the DEM primary, then when he wins, he turns around and runs in the general as an independent. Maybe Vermont DEMs are OK with that behavior but the DEMs I know don’t think it’s so cute. He contributes absolutely nothing to the DEM party and in fact attacks the DEM party at every opportunity. He has never helped another DEM raise money for a campaign and at the end of his last Presidential run he refused to share his donor list.

    He says he’ll sign the “affirmation pledge” now required to do the latter.

    An empty gesture meaning absolutely nothing. The past is prologue.

    IF he should win the primary and IF he should win the general, I suspect he will find few friends in Congress. Certainly nobody who will jump on a hand grenade the way Nunes did for trump.

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  4. James Joyner says:

    @OzarkHillbilly:

    IF he should win the primary and IF he should win the general, I suspect he will find few friends in Congress. Certainly nobody who will jump on a hand grenade the way Nunes did for trump.

    He’s far from my first choice, for a variety of reasons. But I’d argue that the lack of Nunes-type sycophants would be a very good thing, indeed.

  5. Johnathan Devereaux says:

    Can’t blame Bernie for going straight after his base.

  6. mattbernius says:

    The topic of the voting right of incarcerated people is a pretty complex on. As James points on there are good arguments for suspending the ability to vote until a sentence has been completed.

    On the other hand, there are a number of good counter arguments, including the fact that US sentences tend to be significantly longer than those in our peer countries — essentially meaning that people convicted of crimes lose their ability to vote for much longer periods than others. Additionally, as pointed out in a previous post, fees and fines in some cases essentially make it impossible for the average individual to ever successfully complete certain types of sentences.

    There is one other thing that I think is worth considering. James wrote:

    At the local level, the effects of this could be bizarre, indeed. A small community that houses a penitentiary could theoretically have its affairs governed by the inmates.

    This is entirely true. At the same time, in many states, the only reason that small community has any political power are agreements to count the inmates as residents of that community versus where they came from. In New York State, at least, that enabled rural Republicans to maintain control over the Senate for many years.

    Does that mean, necessarily, that those inmates should be able to vote in local elections? I’m not sure, but it does demonstrate how they are often used to prop up parties/candidates that are not necessarily representing their positions (and whose political power rests upon not changing status quo around mass incarceration).

  7. An Interested Party says:

    …in many states, the only reason that small community has any political power are agreements to count the inmates as residents of that community versus where they came from. In New York State, at least, that enabled rural Republicans to maintain control over the Senate for many years.

    That looks very similar to the Three-Fifths Compromise

  8. James Joyner says:

    @An Interested Party:

    That looks very similar to the Three-Fifths Compromise…

    The thought occurred to me, too.

  9. mattbernius says:

    @An Interested Party:
    I guess. Though, frankly, its a way better deal for those communities because it’s a 1:1 count.

    Also, it’s important to note that the majority of prisoners in the US are still white. Minorities are disproportionately represented in the system (for a whole host of reasons). But they are still the minority in terms of head count.

  10. mattbernius says:

    @An Interested Party:
    I guess. Though, frankly, its a way better deal for those communities because it’s a 1:1 count.

    Also, it’s important to note that the majority of prisoners in the US are still white. Minorities are disproportionately represented in the system (for a whole host of reasons). But they are still the minority in terms of head count.

    So, to the degree the 3/5s compromise cannot be separated from race, its a less than perfect metaphor.

  11. An Interested Psrty says:

    So, to the degree the 3/5s compromise cannot be separated from race, its a less than perfect metaphor.

    Oh I meant the comparison to show how people who can’t vote are still used for representation purposes…what a nice little trick that is…

  12. An Interested Party says:

    Now. I wonder why that comment was placed in the moderation queue…