2020 Democrats disagree on whether the incarcerated should be allowed to vote


Who should get the right to vote?

While all the progressive presidential hopefuls seem able to offer up impassioned, clear positions on the rights of the formerly-incarcerated, the question of whether someone currently incarcerated should retain their right to vote appears to be a thornier issue. Only Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has offered his unequivocal support for enfranchisement for all, “even for terrible people,” as he said during a town hall in New Hampshire Monday night. 

Sanders was asked if he supported the enfranchisement of “the Boston Marathon bomber, a convicted terrorist and murderer” as well as people convicted of sexual assault, who, with the right to vote, would “have the opportunity to vote for politicians who have a direct impact on women’s rights.” (The premise of this question, it’s worth noting, is flawed: Most people who commit sexual assault maintain the right to vote because most people who commit sexual assault never go to prison.) 

Sanders responded:

What our Constitution says is that everybody can vote. That is true. So people in jail can vote. If somebody commits a serious crime—sexual assault, murder—they’re going to be punished. They may be in jail for 10 years, 20 years, 50 years, their whole lives. That’s what happens when you commit a serious crime.

But I think the right to vote is inherent to our democracy. Yes, even for terrible people. Because once you start chipping away…you’re running down a slippery slope. So I believe that people commit crimes, they pay the price…I do believe that even if they are in jail, they’re paying their price to society, but that should not take away their inherent American right to participate in our democracy.

Sanders’ response became the jumping-off point for the rest of the evening’s town halls. That same night over in South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg took the opposite stance, saying that citizens should be stripped of the right to vote while incarcerated and only be re-enfranchised when their sentences are complete.

“Part of the punishment when you’re convicted of a crime and you’re incarcerated is that you lose certain rights, you lose your freedom,” Buttigieg said. “I think during that period it does not make sense to have an exception for the right to vote.”

During her CNN town hall, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) was also asked about Sanders’ position. Describing herself as a longtime “advocate of making sure that the formerly incarcerated are not denied a right to vote,” Harris hedged on voting rights for those who are currently incarcerated or on death row, saying only, “I think we should have that conversation.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), who has been outspoken on the matter of voting rights, has taken a similar position to Harris. “Once someone pays their debt to society, they’re … expected to pay taxes, expected to abide by the law, they’re expected to support themselves and their families, I think that means they’ve got a right to vote,” she said last month. “While they’re incarcerated, I think that’s something we can have more conversation about.”

Warren has also called for a constitutional amendment enshrining the right to vote. During a town hall in Mississippi — a state in which about 10% of residents have been disenfranchised because of previous convictions — Warren was asked how she would expand voting rights to the formerly incarcerated and ensure online voter registration.

“I believe we need a constitutional amendment that protects the right to vote for every American citizen and to make sure that vote gets counted,” she responded. “We need to put some federal muscle behind that and we need to repeal every one of the voter suppression laws that is out there right now.”

Warren also expressed support for abolishing the electoral college, eliminating a hierarchy that grants citizens in “battleground states” more power than any other voters.  “I think everybody ought to have to come and ask for your vote,” she said.

Neil Volz, political director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, which aims to end disenfranchisement of people in the state with felony convictions, would not comment on specific candidates’ statements.

“We believe in the principles and spirit of Florida’s Amendment 4,” which expanded voting rights for people with prior felony convictions, save for those those convicted of murder or a felony sexual offense, once their sentences (including parole and probation) are complete, he said. “It is healthy to see disagreements in our democracy, which is something those of us who recently had our votes restored are grateful to engage [in].”

Volz also would not comment on the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition’s stance on voting rights for the currently incarcerated, saying only that “every person has God-given dignity, worth, and a voice.

“We appreciate the energetic give and take of this debate and look forward to discussing these issues with all the candidates,” he added.

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