Sanders Takes Campaign-Killing Position on Felon Voting

Sanders' position on felon voting is logical, yet politically suicidal.

Yesterday Bernie Sanders responded to a question at a CNN town hall event in Manchester NH noting all felons — even those currently incarcerated — should be allowed to vote.  It’s almost like he’s trying to kill his campaign in the crib.

A week after the sixth anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing, Sanders implied that even the surviving marathon bomber, Dzhokar Tsarnaev, currently on federal death row at the Florence, Colorado federal Supermax prison for his role in the terrorist attack, should retain his right to vote.

Restoration of felons’ voting rights has gained traction lately, though the states are far apart on their approaches to restoration of rights.  In Sanders’ home state of Vermont, felons don’t lose rights even when incarcerated, likely a product of a unique political culture of a state whose motto, Freedom and Unity, hints at the balance between the individual liberty of the person and the collective needs of the state.  All 50 states and DC allow preservation or restoration of felons’ voting rights, and differ largely on when restoration can occur, and whether restoration is automatic, or requires the fulfillment of some condition by the felon. 

In reality, when we allow voting by felons is mostly a function of line drawing, and isn’t the binary proposition that some represent.  In reality, the positions that a felon does not lose his rights while incarcerated, and that the felon loses his rights only while incarcerated with automatic restoration after released — embraced by 14 states and DC — aren’t that far apart.  Sociologically, if we really believe in rehabilitation, and we really believe there is a place for felons to reintegrate into society after they have paid their sentence, voting is integral to full social and political participation.  Restoration of voting rights makes perfect sense — but maintaining those rights in prison is definitively a minority position.

The idea that the Boston marathon bomber, Timothy McVeigh, a convicted child molester, a drug gang shooter, or Bernie Madoff should be able to influence the system from confinement, the fundamental rules of which were broken which led to the incarceration to begin with, does not sit well with most folks.  The fact that only two New England states, Maine and Vermont, with their unique social and political cultures that do not resonate much with people from the South and Midwest, preserve voting rights for incarcerated volumes, speaks volumes about how the rest of the country sees this issue.

Sanders illustrates on this issue just how tone deaf he may be to how the rest of the country sees a lot of issues.  He hasn’t recognized how unique Vermont, and New England is in relation to the rest of the country, and how that which works great in Vermont might not carry that well in Texas. 

The wiser statement might have been “Hey, we have a unique way of doing this in Vermont, but this is an issue of state law, and the states should have the discretion to make their own choices” after which he might have talked about reconciliation and reintegration as public goods.

If he’s going to be a viable national candidate, he needs to figure that out soon, if he didn’t kill his own campaign with this statement.

FILED UNDER: 2020 Election, Crime, , , , , , , , , ,
Butch Bracknell
About Butch Bracknell
Butch Bracknell is an international security lawyer. A career Marine, he is a father, Truman National Security Project member, and Sorensen Political Leaders Program fellow. All posts are his personal views only, not representing any organization. Follow him on Twitter at @ButchBracknell.


  1. Michael Reynolds says:

    I agree. This was a stupid own-goal. I am 100% in favor of restoring voting rights to people who’ve done their time. And 100% against letting prisoners vote.

  2. James Joyner says:

    @Michael Reynolds: Yeah, that’s where I stand. By definition, prisoners have been set apart from the community for the duration of their incarceration.

    I wrote about this a couple weeks back when Sanders first broached this. As Steven Taylor noted in a follow-up, though, quite a few other countries, in fact, allow prisoner voting.

  3. @James Joyner: I don’t know how I missed your April 7 post and feel stupid for replowing this ground. I may have slept through that entire Sunday.

  4. Jay L Gischer says:

    I don’t like it, but I’m not sure it’s a death knell for Bernie. And by “I’m not sure”, I don’t mean, “I think it’s fine”, I mean, “I’m not sure – I don’t know”.

    First, he’s the professional politician, not me. Second, it probably helps to have a few controversial positions these days, it makes you look “authentic”. Ahem, we all know about the current occupant and his idiosyncratic, unpopular opinions.

    It’s not like I think it’s a good idea. I just think my idea of what’s disqualifying does not match up with the voting publics very well at all.

  5. Michael Reynolds says:

    @James Joyner:
    I’m aware of the irony in my position, but a prison sentence is a debt owed to society. Pay the debt and we’re all good. Until you pay the debt, we don’t need your vote.

    As for other countries allowing prisoners to vote, it may be a better idea in countries that run civilized penal systems. We do not run civilized penal institutions, we have savage, brutal institutions run by criminal gangs. Send a ballot to a prisoner at San Quentin and he’ll vote his gang affiliation, or be leaned on by guards to vote their way. There’s no such thing as a freely-cast vote in the joint.

  6. Also worth noting the European Court of Human Rights has ruled several times that disenfranchising prisoners is a violation of human rights law. This wouldn’t apply in the US, of course, as the US is not a party to the European Convention on Human Rights, but it does give a little insight on why things are different in Europe. But Europe approaches criminal law and punishment very differently from the US generally (for example, no European state maintains the death penalty, if you don’t count Belarus as European), so this shouldn’t surprise anyone.

  7. @Jay L Gischer: Yeah, I agree, I don’t know if it kills his campaign, but if you’re looking to paint him as wacky and out of touch with mainstream America, he just handed you another cudgel to bludgeon him with.

  8. Bill says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    And 100% against letting prisoners vote.

    This reminds me of the one man show starring Robert Vaughn as FDR.

    Smith visits a prison and begins a speech to the inmates. “My Fellow citizens”

    Which is met with uproarious laughter. Prisoners lost their rights as citizens.

    Smith corrects himself by saying “My fellow convicts”

    That leads to more laughter. Smith goes on though.

    “I’m glad to see so many of you here.”

  9. Kathy says:

    @James Joyner:

    I suppose in most countries that allow prisoners to vote, they don’t have such a large prison population that their votes make much difference.

  10. Tony W says:

    I disagree with the crowd here. I think as citizens we have certain civil rights, even when incarcerated – *especially* when incarcerated. We work hard to assure they get a fair trial, avoid ‘cruel and unusual’ punishment, and read them their Miranda rights when arresting them. We also have a strong appeals process and judicial review to assure we are doing the right thing.

    Civil rights are inalienable. We don’t need a worthiness test to determine if citizens should have them.

    I offer two pragmatic notes however:
    1) There’s little chance of a felon’s vote swaying a fair election, there are not enough of them.
    2) Despite the fact I agree with him on this, It’s politically stupid of Bernie Sanders to fight this battle during an election – this is a fight you take on from a position of power after you’ve won.

  11. Tony W says:


    they don’t have such a large prison population

    Nor should we.

  12. mattbernius says:

    Again, so long as prison gerrymandering is the norm, I’m fully in support of prisoners voting.

    Beyond that, due to the patchwork nature of our criminal justice systems, inconsistencies around things like charging across states and lengths of prison stays (not to mention that we have a system that incentivizes pleading to the degree that state evidence is rarely tested), the radical racial disparities in terms of sentencing, not to mention fees and fines structures that make it difficult, if not impossible for people to complete sentences, I see few particularly good arguments for disenfranchisement being the norm.

    I can see a moral argument against people who commit murder, but in the age of “accessory murder” where people can be charged with murder without being immediately present for the killing (i.e. the person driving the car in a robbery gone bad), I think that’s a slippery slope as well.

    That’s before we get into the number of people who are proven not guilty after years in prison.

    In terms of Sanders, this may be a signal that rather than being in it to win it, he is largely running this year to try to influence to Democrats to go to the left.

  13. James Joyner says:

    @Tony W:

    Civil rights are inalienable.

    Among the inalienable rights listed in the Declaration of Liberty were life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. We allow the government to take away both life and liberty upon criminal conviction, pursuant to due process of law. I suppose we can’t take away the right to pursue happiness, although it’s hard if you’re incarcerated, much less executed for crimes.

  14. James Joyner says:

    @Butch Bracknell:

    I don’t know how I missed your April 7 post and feel stupid for replowing this ground. I may have slept through that entire Sunday.

    Ha. No worries. Happens all the time around here—issues come up sporadically and it’s not always obvious that someone has already written on the topic —especially when it seems like it’s breaking news. Hell, I’ve occasionally written on a topic that I forgot I’ve already written about until I’m reminded by the Related Posts collection in the sidebar.

  15. Here’s where I would draw the line:

    1. People who have served their time in prison after conviction and any applicable probation/parole period, should have their voting rights fully restored. If they were registered to vote prior to conviction, this should apply automatically,

    2. People who are in jail awaiting trial either because they have been denied bail or cannot meet the terms of bail should be permitted to vote absentee. These people have not been convicted of any crimes.

    3. People serving time in jail or prison after conviction should not be permitted to vote until they have served their time, including any applicable probation or parole period.

  16. mattbernius says:

    @Doug Mataconis:
    With 1, what’s your stance on unpaid fees and fines?

    In the case of 2, are there states that bar people held in jail pre-trial from voting?

    Also where should they be counted as residents for the purposes of districting. I still contend that is the most persuasive argument for allowing voting in prison. If prisoners are going to be used to help swing political power to rural districts (rather than where they had lived) then I think there’s a strong argument for allowing them to vote.

  17. @mattbernius:

    If you’re talking about someone who is being held for what amounts to a civil law violation rather than a criminal one there appears to be an argument for allowing them to vote, but I’d leave that matter to the individual states.

  18. Kit says:

    I think all the arguments run towards allowing prisoners to vote. That said, this coming election is much bigger than voting rights, and I’m not willing to die on that hill. And that said, I’m more than happy to have Bernie start laying the groundwork for something that will need another generation to gain any traction.

  19. Gustopher says:

    @Butch Bracknell:

    if you’re looking to paint him as wacky and out of touch with mainstream America, he just handed you another cudgel to bludgeon him with.

    A large part of Bernie’s appeal is that he’s wacky and out of touch with mainstream America. He’s a straight shooter, who calls it like he sees it, and who will disrupt the entrenched system. An iconoclast.

    That’s the same appeal that Donald Trump has, except Bernie is all about economic justice rather than hating brown people.

    Lacking that appeal to the worst in humanity, Bernie is closer to Ron Paul in temperament and appeal.

  20. Richard Gardner says:

    Where would the prisoner vote? In the town the prison is located? I can see the potential for all kinds of mischief here.

  21. Andre Kenji de Sousa says:

    To be fair, it’s a rare stance of Bernie taking a courageous political position instead of just promising to hand people money and stuff. I applaud him for doing that. The devil is in the details, but it’s a courageous position.

  22. mattbernius says:

    @Richard Gardner:

    Where would the prisoner vote? In the town the prison is located?

    In most states, yes. It’s what’s known as prison gerrymandering ( They are already being counted as local population for the purposes of allocating representation in State Government.

    So for example, in IL, even though 60% of prisoners are from Cook County (Chicago), 99% of those prisoners are counted outside the county. So Cook County residents are being used to disperse more power to the lower populated rural areas where the prisons are located.

    In some locations in the US, prisoners increase local populations by more than 10%, which shifts representation lines and moves representative power away from the urban centers where those prisoners are coming from and returning to and to rural areas (where the representative isn’t being held accountable to serve the “new” members of his or her district because they have no vote in the matter).

  23. Andy says:

    It seems especially stupid of Sanders to bring this up since this is a question that is decided by the states and not the federal government. A President Sanders would have no authority to determine the voting rights of prisoners so what is the point of bringing it up except for virtue signaling.

  24. Scott says:

    I understand the historical basis of Federalism but the idea that American’s rights can vary based on the state they live in seems absurd in this day and age.

    Further, if Bernie falters, then that is find with me. And take Joe Biden with him. I’m sticking to my irrational view that the next President shouldn’t be a Baby Boomer or older.

  25. Franklin says:

    Since I’m not particularly interested in Sanders winning the nomination, I’m fine with him taking this position. In fact I’m glad he did – I think this could move the center point on this issue. If you get people debating about whether felons should have voting rights after or while they serve their sentence, then we would be making progress in most states.

  26. DrDaveT says:

    I would favor letting prisoners vote while incarcerated until such time as we can fix the Florida problem that lets them deny rights to people who have served their time, on the grounds that they haven’t paid the bogus fines that were piled on top of the prison sentence.

  27. DrDaveT says:


    And that said, I’m more than happy to have Bernie start laying the groundwork for something that will need another generation to gain any traction.

    I’ll go further — I am more than happy to let Bernie kill his personal chances of being nominated, while at the same time staking out a position that will make other prison reform look moderate by comparison when actual Democrats propose it.

  28. Jen says:

    I wouldn’t go so far as to say Bernie has killed his chances with this. The Blue Revolution folks are tearing each other apart right now on a purity test that didn’t even exist yesterday. (Yes, it’s mostly Bernie people finally finding a reason to tear into Buttigieg, but wow.)

  29. MarkedMan says:


    Lacking that appeal to the worst in humanity, Bernie is closer to Ron Paul in temperament and appeal.

    I feel obligated to point out that Ron and Rand Paul made hundreds of thousands of dollars publishing the Ron Paul Newsletter which was a vile racist rag, referring to non-whites as “mud people” as well as other white supremicist tropes.

  30. MarkedMan says:

    This is so typical Bernie. He has never been interested in actually accomplishing anything as that would involve building a coalition and, shudder, working with others. His joy in life is to stake out an outlier position and heap contempt on all those insufficiently pure to agree with him. I am willing to bet that inability to vote doesn’t even make the top 50 of all the unfair things prisoners have to deal with. If Bernie actually gave a damn about prisoners he could ask them what kept them up at night and work on that.

  31. Gustopher says:

    @MarkedMan: I keep forgetting about that bit of Ron Paul. I really just wanted to soften the comparison to Trump.

    Most of the Ron Paul supporters weren’t racist scum, and I kind of suspect that he just neglected his little newsletter and didn’t notice the racists that had started camping out there.

    BernieBros and Paultards* seem cut from the same cloth. Mostly fine, but caught up in a personality cult that makes them yell “wake up Sheeple” at those who haven’t embraced their love. You wouldn’t want your kid to marry one, and you wouldn’t want to sit next to one on a plane… more annoying than appalling.

    *: It’s a historical term, dating back from when “retard” was socially acceptable. Now they would be “pauldouchecanoes” or something.

  32. rachel says:

    The idea that the Boston marathon bomber, Timothy McVeigh

    McVeigh, being deceased, has a different problem in exercising a potential franchise than the rest of those guys.

  33. Guarneri says:

    @Doug Mataconis:


    As for Bernie, it’s just a marketing ploy.

  34. Daniel says:

    Although I agree with the writer, I’m curious if not letting those in prison vote is causing mass incarceration. Having the 2.3 incarcerated voters would certainly change the political dynamic in the USA.

  35. Daniel says:

    @Daniel: 2.3 million* incarcerated voters

  36. DrDaveT says:


    I’m curious if not letting those in prison vote is causing mass incarceration

    For Republicans, it’s a twofer — you get brown people off the streets, and you get more electable.

  37. Daniel Samayoa says:

    @DrDaveT: I have no doubt that is their motive.

  38. mattbernius says:

    BTW, another reason why I support voting in prison:

    Joseph Franco, 46, a plainclothes cop who was assigned to the Manhattan South Narcotics Division, allegedly falsified information on three arrests over the past two years. He was arraigned in Manhattan Supreme Court Wednesday.

    All three convictions against the people he allegedly falsely arrested have been vacated and the cases sealed.

    I’d love to go and check voter records to see if officer Franco voted either of the years he was committing these crimes. One thing is for sure, the people he helped secure false convictions against couldn’t do that.