Democratic candidates express views on prisoner voting rights

Jake Webster

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., a candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, was asked during a CNN town hall whether he would support the extension of voting rights to incarcerated felons, including violent offenders like the Boston marathon bomber.

“I think the right to vote is inherent to our democracy,” Sanders said. “Yes, even for terrible people.”

A recent poll by SurveyMonkey for Business Insider found 75 percent of Americans do not agree with Sanders’s stance of providing voting rights to all incarcerated persons.

Each state determines what voting rights felons have in their jurisdiction.

Dirk Deam, a senior lecturer of political science at Iowa State, said Congress could try to expand voting rights to all American citizens above the age of majority. However, he said in order for there to be an encompassing right to vote, legislative action would not be enough.

“I suspect it would ultimately have to be a constitutional amendment,” Deam said.

Iowa and Kentucky remain the only two states with lifetime voting bans for convicted felons no matter the offense they were convicted of, with restoration only available on personal appeal to the governor.

Already, the states of Vermont and Maine allow incarcerated felons to cast ballots regardless of the offense they are convicted of, and California allows for felons serving time in county jails to vote.

In the 2018 midterm elections, Florida voters approved a ballot measure automatically restoring voting rights to ex-felons after they complete their sentences. Previously, ex-felons had to individually appeal to the State Board of Executive Clemency to request the restoration of their voting rights.

Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds called for the state legislature to pass a proposed constitutional amendment that would automatically restore voting rights to felons after they complete their sentences in her condition of the state address in January.

In order for a constitutional amendment to be passed in Iowa, the proposed amendment must be agreed to by two successive general assemblies and then approved by a majority of voters.

The proposed amendment passed the Iowa House of Representatives by a vote of 95-2; however, the Iowa Senate failed to advance the proposal.

In the meantime, to try to ease the current method of expanding the franchise to felons, Reynolds replaced the previous form felons had to fill out to apply for the restoration of their voting rights in March.

The new form is a single page as opposed to the previous three pages, and it waives the fee formerly required alongside its submission. The governor said she would like felons to automatically receive them when they finish their sentences.

Following Sanders’s remarks, other 2020 candidates voiced their opinions on the possibility of extending the franchise to incarcerated persons.

Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., said she supports restoring voting rights to convicted felons where they are not granted that right upon release.

“I think we should have that conversation,” Harris said on granting voting rights to those currently in prison. 

However, not all 2020 candidates are open to this proposal.

“Part of the punishment when you were convicted of a crime and you’re incarcerated is you lose certain rights, you lose your freedom,” said Mayor Pete Buttigieg, D-South Bend.

The two Texans in the race, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary and ex-Mayor Julián Castro, found a stance in the middle of those two points. Both said they were open to the possibility of allowing prisoners convicted of nonviolent offenses to vote.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren said she is not there yet regarding voting rights being granted to all incarcerated felons.

However, in March, Warren said she supports the right to vote being returned to felons once they complete their sentences.

“Once someone pays their debt to society, they’re out there expected to pay taxes, expected to abide by the law, they’re expected to support themselves and their families,” Warren said. “I think that means they’ve got a right to vote.”

Deam said if this were being argued as a rights problem then everyone would feel the same way about granting suffrage to all felons regardless of whether they are incarcerated.

However, Deam said this issue has been fraught with a political framing, and said it is similar to Republicans not embracing the notion of getting money out of politics because they’re a minority party and want to take advantage of corporate donors.

“This tends to be framed in totally partisan concerns,” Deam said.