Should felons in prison have voting rights?

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What’s happening: Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders made provocative comments about voting rights during a recent presidential candidate town hall, saying he thought felons — even those still imprisoned — should be granted the right to vote in elections. The White House hopeful said that incarceration should “not take away their inherent American right to participate in our democracy.” Currently only two states allow incarcerated citizens to vote: Maine and Sanders’s home state of Vermont.

Why there’s debate: It’s suddenly a campaign issue, as Sanders’s comments have spurred other Democratic candidates to share their views. California Sen. Kamala Harris, a former prosecutor, said “we should have that conversation” about granting prisoners the right to vote, but a day later appeared to hedge, saying, “There has to be serious consequences for the most extreme types of crimes.” Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Ind., is against the idea: “Part of the punishment when you’re convicted of a crime and you’re incarcerated is you lose certain rights.”

Whether the offense was violent or nonviolent is also part of the debate. Progressive Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez weighed in, tweeting: “Instead of asking, ‘Should the Boston Bomber have the right to vote?’ Try, ‘Should a nonviolent person stopped w/ a dime bag LOSE the right to vote?’ [Because] that question reflects WAY more people.”

Democratic candidates Beto O’Rourke and Julián Castro say they back letting nonviolent felons cast ballots behind bars, but draw the line at violent prisoners.

What’s next: The movement to restore voting rights to felons has gained some momentum in recent years. In Florida, legislation to restore voting rights to felons (except murderers and felony sex offenders) has passed the state House. The bill that would implement a constitutional amendment was approved by voters in November’s midterm elections. But in other states like IowaHawaii and New Mexico, measures have stalled.

The idea of granting voting rights to offenders currently in prison remains a controversial one, and for Democratic candidates, a potential gauge of their outlook on crime and punishment.


Felons should have no say in shaping the law by voting

“Society punishes convicted felons by denying them control over their own affairs. Permitting them to exercise control over society’s affairs by voting would be not only irrational, but unjust. Incarcerated criminals should not have a say in shaping criminal law. Rapists should not be allowed to dilute the vote of rape victims. The crook sent to prison for election fraud has no business taking part in the next election.” — Jeff Jacoby, Boston Globe

It is not unreasonable to allow prisoners to vote

“Prisoners lose many of their rights when they go to prison. They can’t serve on a jury from a prison cell, or own guns; both of those are probably reasonable proscriptions. They probably should not own guns. But prisoners do not lose all their rights in prison. They are entitled to practice their religion and can challenge the conditions of their confinement. Taking away prisoners’ liberty is already a heavy punishment. Allowing them to cast an absentee ballot is not an unreasonable privilege.” — Andrew Novak, Daily Beast

Democrats will gain support by pushing felon voter rights. That doesn’t make it right.

“It looks as if almost all felons are Democrats. Felons are not just like everyone else — they are even more likely to vote Democratic than was previously believed. This guarantees that some Democratic supporters will continue in their efforts to get felons to the polls. If Democrats fight for and achieve felon enfranchisement, they can count on having an even more loyal voting bloc. ... Democrats’ desire to let felons vote is understandable. But criminals shouldn’t cast deciding votes that overrule the policy preferences of law-abiding Americans.” — John R. Lott Jr., National Review

The consequences of being imprisoned include losing some rights

“I’m sick of this redemption BS. You want redemption? Serve your time and pay the consequences — which include getting some of your rights taken away. Oh, boo-woo felons feel disenfranchised. Guess who else feels slighted and disenfranchised? The people who lost everything, lost a loved one or died because of the actions of selfish felons.” — Tomi Lahren, Fox News

Maine and Vermont allow inmates to cast ballots. Other states should too.

“Mandatory disenfranchisement is constitutional — the 14th Amendment allows the government to restrict the right to vote because of “participation in rebellion, or other crime” — but there are few good reasons for the practice. The best argument, outside of the case from custom and tradition, is that committing a serious crime voids your right to have a say in the political process. You lose your liberty — your place in civil society — and the freedoms that come with it. But doing it that way — subjecting prisoners to a kind of social death — is in conflict with the idea of “inalienable” rights that cannot be curtailed.” — Jamelle Bouie, New York Times

Repeal the civic death sentence imposed on prisoners

“But for all their outrage, Sanders’ critics seemed clueless about the history and practice of barring prisoners from voting. As Sanders pointed out in the town hall, the Constitution of his state, Vermont, has enfranchised prisoners from the beginning without any deleterious political or social effects. ... If you believe that incarceration exists to rehabilitate the wayward and reintegrate them into society, you’ll probably warm to the idea of giving them the vote.” — Jack Shafer, Politico Magazine

Sanders misses the point of incarceration

“Now, if you’re just joining us from CNN this may shock you, but when you’re in prison you lose rights. It’s called prison, not spring break. So no — it’s not a slippery slope when denying voting rights to prisoners, because the slope doesn’t exist. You’re in jail — there’s no freedom. You can’t even vote with your feet! But in a socialist’s mind, sense doesn’t apply. Socialists disguise their thirst for power as “the greater good,” which means pretending to care while taking control.” — Greg Gutfeld, Fox News

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