AOC joins Bernie in backing voting rights for prisoners

Kadia Tubman
Reporter

Stepping into the debate over whether imprisoned felons should be allowed to vote, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez endorsed the idea and advised opponents they risked “looking completely + utterly out of touch w/ the reality [of] our prison system.”

“Instead of asking, ‘Should the Boston Bomber have the right to vote?’” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted Thursday, “Try, ‘Should a nonviolent person stopped w/ a dime bag LOSE the right to vote?’

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., at the National Action Network national convention in New York City on April 5. (Photo: Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

“[Because] that question reflects WAY more people,” she added.

Ocasio-Cortez, the freshman Democrat from New York who has emerged as a de facto spokesperson for the party’s progressive wing, weighed in after Sen. Bernie Sanders was criticized for proposing that people in prison for any reason should be allowed to cast a ballot.

When asked during a CNN town hall Monday night if incarcerated felons like the Boston Marathon bomber or those convicted of sexual assault should be eligible to vote while serving their sentences, Sanders firmly replied, “The right to vote is inherent to our democracy — yes, even for terrible people.”

“As it happens, in my own state of Vermont, from the very first days of our state's history, what our Constitution says is that everybody can vote,” he said. “So people in jail can vote.”

Sanders continued: “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,” he added, “because once you start chipping away and you say, ‘Well, that guy committed a terrible crime, not going to let him vote.’ ... You're running down a slippery slope.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., at a Fox News town hall event in Bethlehem, Pa., on April 15. (Photo: Matt Rourke/AP)

The Republican National Committee issued a statement denouncing Sanders, who during the town hall accused Republican governors of a “cowardly” effort to suppress votes.

“Bernie Sanders, the current front-runner for the Democratic nomination, just made it clear he wants convicted terrorists, sex offenders and murderers to vote from prison,” the statement read. “The Boston Marathon Bomber killed three people and injured 280 more. Bernie’s concern? That he gets his absentee ballot.”

Only two states allow incarcerated citizens to vote, Sanders’s Vermont and Maine.

During the 2018 midterm elections, Florida voted to approve Amendment 4, automatically restoring voting rights in the state for convicted felons — not including those convicted of sexual offenses or murder — after their sentences are completed.

The vote was a major win for criminal justice reform and the re-enfranchisement movement, which advocates for voting rights for people in prison and the 6 million Americans who, according to the Sentencing Project, are kept from voting because of felony disenfranchisement, especially African-Americans, who are incarcerated at higher rates than white Americans.

“Black Americans & PoC are far more likely to be convicted + sentenced longer than White Americans for similar crimes,” Ocasio-Cortez continued in her Twitter debate. “Our system routinely criminalizes poverty + exonerates wealth.”

She added: “Many rebut the voting question by saying, ‘Well, *those* people shouldn’t be jailed.’ Glad you feel that way! But the truth is, the US incarcerates more people per capita than anywhere in the world - even more than China. Our system is built to disenfranchise people of color.

“We ‘shouldn’t’ incarcerate for nonviolent offenses, we ‘shouldn’t’ have school-to-prison pipelines, we ‘shouldn’t’ sentence [people of color] more than white people for similar crimes ... but we do. We’re so eager to talk about punishment, but correcting our injustices is ‘controversial.’”

Sanders is the first candidate to outright support felony voting rights. Some other 2020 candidates have cautiously said it should be considered, while others have denounced the idea completely.

“These are policies that go back to Jim Crow,” said 2020 contender Sen. Kamala Harris, also speaking at a CNN town hall, about laws that leave felons “permanently deprived of the right to vote.”

She added: “These are policies that go back to the heart of policies that have been about disenfranchisement, policies that continue until today, and we need to take it seriously.”

Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Ind., when asked the same question at his own town hall on Monday, responded, “No, I don’t think so.”

“Enfranchisement upon release is important, but part of the punishment … is you lose certain rights,” said Buttigieg. “You lose your freedom. And I don’t think during that time it makes sense to have that exception.”

“People commit crimes, they paid the price,” said Sanders. “When they get out of jail, I believe they certainly should have the right to vote. But 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.”

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