Bernie Sanders says felons, even Boston Marathon bomber, should have right to vote in prison

Aamer Madhani
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Bernie Sanders says felons, even Boston Marathon bomber, should have right to vote in prison

Bernie Sanders offered his stance at a CNN town hall Monday when asked whether he thought felons should be allowed to vote while they’re incarcerated.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders said he thinks every U.S. citizen, even the convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, should be allowed to vote in American elections.

Sanders offered his stance at a CNN town hall Monday when asked whether he thought felons should be allowed to vote while they’re incarcerated, not just after their release. 

He was pressed on whether it was appropriate to enfranchise sex offenders or someone convicted of a heinous crime like Tsarnaev, who with his brother carried out the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing that left three dead and injured hundreds more.

"Yes, even for terrible people, because once you start chipping away and you say, 'Well, that guy committed a terrible crime, not going to let him vote. Well, that person did that. Not going to let that person vote,' you're running down a slippery slope," Sanders said in response to a question about restoring felons' voting rights.

The question, and Sanders' response, was one of the more interesting moments in a marathon round of voter forums at Saint Anslem College in New Hampshire, where five Democratic hopefuls made their cases to young voters.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., speaks at an Ohio workers town hall meeting, Sunday, April 14, 2019, in Warren, Ohio.

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Sanders acknowledged that he’ll likely face criticism from both Republicans and Democrats over his stance. Still, he stood by his argument that even though offenders may be paying a debt to society while incarcerated it should “not take away their inherent American right to participate in our democracy.”

“I think I have written many 30-second opposition ads throughout my life,” Sanders said of potential criticism. “This will be just another one.”

California Sen. Kamala Harris and South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who appeared separately Monday night, were also posed questions about whether or not to allow convicted felons the right to vote while they are serving their sentences.

California Sen. Kamala Harris appears at a fundraiser for Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc., of which she is a member, Jan. 25, 2019 in Columbia, S.C.

Harris, a former prosecutor and state attorney general, was considerably more circumspect.

"I think we should have that conversation," Harris said, adding that voting rights should not be "stripped" needlessly.

"I have long been an advocate of making sure people formerly incarcerated are not denied the right to vote," Harris said. "In some states they're permanently deprived of the right to vote."

Buttigieg didn’t hesitate when asked whether felons should be allowed to vote white serving their sentences.

"No," he said. "I do believe that when you are, when you have served your sentence, then part of being restored to society is that you are part of the political life of this nation again and one of the things that needs to be restored is your right to vote."

In all but two states—Maine and Sanders' home state of Vermont—adult citizens convicted of a felony are barred from voting while incarcerated, according to the group Nonprofit Vote, a consortium of nonprofits and social service agencies that promote voter participation.

2020 Democratic presidential candidate South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg speaks during a town hall meeting, Tuesday, April 16, 2019, in Fort Dodge, Iowa.

Fourteen states and the District of Columbia automatically restore voting rights upon release from prison. Five states reinstate voting rights once a felon is released and discharged from parole. Another 21 states restore voting rights after a felon completes any prison sentence, parole and probation.

In six state states, the chance of restoring voting rights depends on the type of conviction and requires an ex-felon to petition the state government.

In Iowa, ex-offenders must also pay all fines and fees to the court that are part of a sentence. Once complete, individuals convicted of a felony can apply to have their voting rights restored—which can only be done through the governor or the president.

Kentucky’s constitution permanently bars all individuals with past felony convictions from voting, unless the governor restores the right to vote, according to Nonprofit Vote.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Bernie Sanders says felons, even Boston Marathon bomber, should have right to vote in prison