Bernie Sanders won't back down on prisoner voting, despite political risks

Bernie Sanders isn’t backing away from his controversial proposal to allow all incarcerated felons to vote in U.S. elections.

One week after Sanders made headlines after a CNN town hall by declaring his support for allowing prisoners to vote regardless of the crimes they had committed, the Vermont senator fleshed out his views with a USA Today op-ed and a thread posted to Twitter on Tuesday.

Just two U.S. states — Maine and Vermont — currently allow convicted felons the right to vote while incarcerated, but numerous countries, including Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Israel, Japan, Netherlands, Poland, Serbia, Sweden and Zimbabwe, do not disenfranchise prisoners.

Many of the ideas expressed by Sanders on Tuesday are found in Michelle Alexander’s 2010 book “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness,” which argues that mass incarceration of African-Americans as a result of the war on drugs has effectively replaced Jim Crow-era laws designed to keep black Americans on the margins of society. Stripping voting rights, Alexander writes, is part of that effort.

During the CNN town hall, Sanders was pressed on whether he would extend voting rights to convicted sex offenders or the Boston Marathon bomber.

“Yes, even for terrible people,” Sanders replied, “because once you start chipping away and you say, ‘Well, that guy committed a terrible crime, not going to let him vote. Oh, that person did that, not going to let that person vote.’ You’re running down a slippery slope.”

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., answers questions during a presidential forum held by She the People at Texas State University on April 24, 2019. (Photo: Michael Wyke/AP)

Speaking at the National Rifle Association’s annual conference on Friday, President Trump mocked Sanders’s position.

“Let the Boston bomber vote,” Trump said. “I don’t think so. Let terrorists who are in prison vote, I don’t think so.”

Two of Sanders’s Democratic rivals, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., and California’s Sen. Kamala Harris, have come out against letting prisoners convicted of violent crimes vote. Both Harris and Buttigieg support restoring voting rights upon a felon’s release from prison as well as clearing the criminal records of those arrested on marijuana convictions.

Polling on the issue is limited. A SurveyMonkey Audience online survey found that 75 percent of Americans disagreed with Sanders’s position on extending the franchise to all prisoners. The right-leaning polling group Rasmussen Reports found in 2018 that 65 percent of likely voters surveyed by phone and online opposed letting prisoners participate in U.S. elections.

In his op-ed, Sanders said he would extend voting rights even to the “crooks on Wall Street.”

“This should not devolve into a debate about whether certain people are ‘good enough’ to have the right to vote. Voting is not a privilege. It is a right,” Sanders wrote. “In my view, the crooks on Wall Street who caused the great recession of 2008 that hurt millions of Americans are not ‘good’ people. But they have the right to vote, and it should never be taken away.”

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