Yes, Incarcerated People Should Be Able to Vote


CNN’S five-hour, five-candidate Townhallchella in Manchester, NH, last night was bound to spark some sort of controversy, and the closest we came to that was in Sen. Bernie Sanders’ response that everyone, including people who are in prison for violent crimes, should have the right to vote.

Sanders received the question from a Harvard student, who asked if he would extend the right to vote to Boston marathon bomber Dhokar Tsarnaev or “those convicted of sexual assault.”

Sanders went into his usual stump speech, stressing that the position was part of a larger effort to expand democracy and voting rights, particularly for young people. “We live in a moment where cowardly Republican governors are trying to suppress the vote,” Sanders continued, citing the example of New Hampshire’s legislature putting restrictions on college students who want to vote.

Regarding violent felony offenders in particular, Sanders cited his state, Vermont, as one of the two states where people who are currently in prison can vote. “What our Constitution says is that everybody can vote. That is true. So people in jail can vote,” Sanders said. “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,” he continued. “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 doubled down when pressed on his answer by moderator Chris Cuomo, who told Sanders he was writing his own opposition ads. “Well, Chris, I’ve written many 30-second opposition ads in my life,” Sanders shot back. “This is just another one.”

Later during his hour-long town hall, South Bend, IN, Mayor Pete Buttigieg was asked his opinion on Sanders’ proposal to let everyone vote. He did not agree.

“While incarcerated?” Buttigieg asked Anderson Cooper. “No, I don’t think so.”

Buttigieg did stress that he favors re-enfranchising people once they serve their sentences. “I do believe that when you have served your sentence, part of being restored to society is that you’re part of the political life of this nation again,” Buttigieg elaborated. “One of the things that need to be restored is your right to vote…we’d be a better country if every [state] restored it.”

But he went on, “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. I think during that period it does not make sense to have an exception for the right to vote.”

The fact that we’re even having this debate is a good sign for where the Democratic Party is moving with regard to voting rights, even if an amendment to lower the voting age to 16 only received support from a little over half of the House Democratic caucus last month. But the entire question from the Harvard student is a trap, one which Cuomo of course immediately fell into because his brain is concentrated in his jawline. For every convicted bomber who’d be granted the right to vote, there’s a hundred thousand people who became felons due to nonviolent drug offenses who’d be re-enfranchised.

Also, relying on a justice system that systematically protects the powerful in society—who only rarely answer for their own crimes—to sort out who should vote in America is dangerous and stupid.

Contrary to what Buttigieg said, being thrown in jail does not remove you from the “political life” of America. In fact, people in prison interact with the government (or a government contractor, unfortunately) 24/7, which is decidedly more than most of us. If they’re lucky, their needs are factored into state budgets. If they’re not, bad shit tends to happen in the way that it tends to when a population’s needs are ignored by people elected in a process which that population didn’t have the right to participate in.

Sanders is right; the right to vote shouldn’t be taken away for bad behavior, and that includes Dhokar Tsarnaev. And considering this country’s racist history of both administering justice and taking away the right to vote for bullshit reasons, no one should trust the state to be a fair arbiter of who gets to vote.

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