Should Prisoners Get the Right to Vote? Bernie Sanders Thinks So

By Rachel Alexander Published on May 8, 2019

Some Democratic presidential candidates are considering whether to give prisoners the right to vote. Not just felons who have left prison. Some states already allow felons to vote. They want to give people in prison the right to vote.

Bernie Sanders is the main proponent. He says voting is “inherent to our democracy — yes, even for terrible people.” Thirty other countries let prisoners vote, he notes, including Canada, South Africa and Finland.

The Democratic presidential candidates are split on whether to let felons vote. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke and former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro approve of letting nonviolent felons behind bars vote. They draw the line at violent felons.

Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana opposes the change. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren says she is “not there yet” on letting prisoners vote. California Sen. Kamala Harris would stick to letting released felons vote.

Currently, two states allow prisoners to vote, Maine and Vermont.

Currently, only two states allow prisoners to vote, Maine and Vermont. In 14 states and D.C., felons’ voting rights are automatically restored upon release from prison. In 22 states, felons do not get their rights restored immediately after release. They can’t vote while on parole or probation. In the remaining 12 states, regaining voting rights is more problematic. It sometimes requires a governor’s pardon or clemency.

The Arguments: Pro and Con

Why wouldn’t we want prisoners to vote? Because we don’t trust their judgment, says Roger Clegg, president and general counsel of the Center for Equal Opportunity. We don’t let children or the mentally incompetent vote. “People who commit serious crimes have shown that they are not trustworthy,” he argues.

He further points out: “If you’re not willing to follow the law, then you should not have a role in making the law for everyone else, which is what you do when you vote.” Why should those who break the laws get to make the laws? Do we really want terrorists voting to decide our laws?

There is an argument that even nonviolent prisoners shouldn’t get the right to vote.

There is an argument that even nonviolent prisoners shouldn’t get the right to vote. Some serious crimes don’t involve violence, crimes like treason, espionage, public corruption and white-collar crime — even voter fraud. In response, some argue that prison is to protect the prisoner from the public, so infringing on their rights beyond that is unnecessary. But others point out that prison is also a punishment, a deterrent.

Proponents of prisoners voting assert that the laws disenfranchising prisoners were put into place in part due to racism. Former Attorney General Eric Holder claims that nearly one in 13 blacks can’t vote due to the laws. But in the 2002 Florida case Johnson v. Bush, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that that racial animus did not motivate the law.

Voting Disenfranchisement a Punishment

Some claim that prison is meant to be a punishment, where prisoners lose many of their rights. That’s the point of the prison sentence. They can only be given the rights of members of society when they are deemed capable of acting as responsible members of society.

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On the other hand, Professor Jeff Manza argues that prisoners shouldn’t lose all their rights. He says allowing them to vote “may strengthen their social ties and commitment to the common good, thus promoting legally responsible participation in civil society.” It will encourage them to take an interest in their community. Additionally, withholding the right to vote doesn’t serve as a deterrent to committing more crime.

Some argue that prisoners’ views and needs are not represented. Politicians don’t think about their concerns because they don’t vote. Overcrowding and abuse in prison are not adequately addressed, for example. On the other hand, NGOs and statutory prison inspection bodies do represent prisoners’ needs.

The Real Reason

But perhaps the real reason some of these Democratic presidential candidates want to give prisoners the right to vote is because they will vote as Democrats.

A study of New York felons found that 61.5% register as Democrats after leaving prison. Only 9 percent register as Republicans. Similarly, 51.9% of registered ex-felons in New Mexico register as Democrats. Only 18.9% register as Republicans. If Bernie Sanders gets his way, Democrats will acquire a new voting constituency.

Even Cher thinks it’s a bad idea. In a since-deleted tweet, she exclaimed, “Does Bernie Sanders Really Believe Ppl In Prison Who Are Murders!? Rapists!? Child Molesters!? BOSTON BOMBERS … STILL DESERVE THE RIGHT TO VOTE!?” Lefty Cher opposes the idea. Maybe it’s a bad one.

 

Follow Rachel on Twitter at Rach_IC. Send tips to rachel.alexander@stream.org.

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