Democratic frontrunners are facing scrutiny for their stance on voting rights for incarcerated felons - after Bernie Sanders said he supports voting rights 'even for terrible people'.
"This is a democracy and we have got to expand that democracy,” the Vermont senator said, “and I believe every single person does have the right to vote.”
Vermont is one of two states, the other being Maine, where incarcerated felons have always retained their right to vote. In Sanders’s adopted state, voters must be citizens of Vermont and register at their previous home address, preventing prisons from becoming voting blocs. A 2018 report from NBC on the practice claimed that it’s had a “profound” effect on prisoners re-entering free society. As of 2018, neither states tracks the number of votes from prison.
Still, allowing prisoners to vote became an unexpected, and hotly contested, issue. Senators Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren both told audiences that they’d like to have a “conversation” about that practice. Each added that restoring voting rights for felons after they leave prison remains important to them.
Meanwhile, South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg came out strongly against the notion.
"You lose your freedom and I think during that freedom it does not make sense to have an exception for it the right to vote," Buttigieg said.
His response was mostly met with applause in the town hall, but a swift response from viewers at home criticised the Midwestern mayor for his unwavering stance.
"I’ve been working in prisons for five years now & there is not a single person in there who doesn’t deserve the right to vote," wrote author and Harvard PhD candidate Clint Smith on Twitter. "To suggest otherwise is to have a myopic, regressive view of who & is not deserving of citizenship."
"Buttigieg said that it was a matter of punishment," wrote organiser and photographer Kelly Hayes in the midst of a Twitter thread responding to the mayor's position. "But if to punish a human being, you must remove their ability to have any voice in what happens to them in the largest of matters, in addition to the smallest of matters, that's not mere punishment. That's utter dehumanisation."
Others pointed out hat at least one member of the town hall audience seemed perplexed by the mayor's statement.
“What's the reason NOT to let incarcerated people vote?” wrote Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff Saikat Chakrabarti in a tweet Wednesday morning. “Shouldn't the people most affected by unjust laws have some say in electing people to change them?”
Senator Amy Klobuchar, who also had a town hall on CNN Tuesday night, was not asked about her stance on the matter.