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April 23, 2019

How could and how should a President push states to extend the franchise to all prisoners?

I have not been blogging all that much about some of the notable criminal justice positions and statements by the huge field of candidates seeking the Democratic Party's nomination to run for US President.  But this press piece about an exchange involving Senator Bernie Sanders at a town hall last night prompted the question that is the title of this post.  The headline of The Hill piece is catchy, "Sanders: Boston Marathon bomber should be able to vote from prison," and here is its account of the exchange:

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) argued Monday that all prisoners, including domestic terrorists such as the Boston Marathon bomber, should have the right to vote while they are incarcerated.

Speaking at a CNN town hall, Sanders was asked if he believes the right to vote should extend to serious criminals, such as Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who is in prison and has been sentenced to death.  “If somebody commits a serious crime, sexual assault, murder, they’re going to be punished,” Sanders said.  “They may be in jail for 10 years, 20 years, 50 years, their whole lives.  That’s what happens when you commit a serious crime."

"But I think the right to vote is inherent to our democracy," he continued.  "Yes, even for terrible people, because once you start chipping away ... you’re running down a slippery slope. ... I do believe that even if they are in jail, they’re paying their price to society, but that should not take away their inherent American right to participate in our democracy.”

Earlier this month, Sanders called for more states to join Vermont and Maine in allowing imprisoned felons to vote.... “This is what I believe. Do you believe in democracy? Do you believe that every single American 18 years of age or older who is an American citizen has the right to vote?"

"Once you start chipping away at that ... that’s what our Republican governors all over this country are doing.  They come up with all kinds of excuses why people of color, young people, poor people can’t vote.  And I will do everything I can to resist that," he added.

Regular readers likely know that I see no good reason to disenfranchise categorically any class of competent voters (and my basic thinking on this front was explained in this Big Think piece years ago headlined "Let Prisoners Vote").  But, in the context of discussions about the positions of potential candidates for President, anyone call for expanding suffrage ought to be asked about how the federal government can and should seek to push states into ensuring more people have the right to vote.  This can be done, of course, through a constitutional amendment or through various forms of federal legislation that might try to force or prod states into changing their voting eligibility rules. 

I would really like to know if Senator Sanders (or any other presidential contender) is prepared to move forward with a formal federal plan that would go beyond just "call[ing] for more states to join Vermont and Maine in allowing imprisoned felons to vote."   Because I am not a voting rights expert, I am not sure what might be the best ways, legally and politically, to make progress on this front.  But I hope the question in the title of this post might be further explored on the campaign trail over the next 18 months.

April 23, 2019 at 10:27 AM | Permalink


A prisoner should not have the right to vote, thereby potentially affecting his or her punishment. Simple as that.

Posted by: William Jockusch | Apr 23, 2019 9:58:25 PM

As long as an inmate is being incarcerated at a prison, he should not be able to vote due to peer pressure. Once an inmate has served their time and released from prison - he is back in society and has a right to vote as long as he/she are American citizens.

Posted by: LC in Texas | Apr 24, 2019 7:03:30 PM

William: should a persons accused of a crime be able to vote, knowing she might be sentenced in the near future? How about someone on probation hoping to have it end sooner? How about someone on a sex offender registry? How about someone with a loved one who is a prisoner? How about a prosecutor who knows longer punishments will make his job easier? Everyone has some reason to care about punishment, and that cannot be a "simple" reason to prevent someone from voting.

LC: isn't everyone impacted by "peer pressure" in some way when voting? Voting in prison can be made secure --- indeed, more secure than outside --- to ensure no undue pressure at the time of voting. This is done without incident in two US states and in many countries around the world.

Posted by: Doug B | Apr 25, 2019 11:31:15 AM

Doug -- those are all reasonable questions. My feeling is that once you move beyond the person convicted, the line-drawing becomes impossible and therefore shouldn't be attempted. And I can see valid arguments both ways for people convicted of serious crimes then later released. But if we are going ask that kind of question, here is one of my own. Should a killer be allowed to vote, given that his victim can not?

Posted by: William Jockusch | Apr 25, 2019 9:39:27 PM

A couple of responses, William. First, of course, the vast majority of prisoners are not "killers," and a lot of people not in prison have caused the death of others. In other words, a voting rule that says "killers" cannot vote is radically different than a rule that says prisoners cannot vote. Second, there are lots of things we say a "killer" (even one in prison) still gets to do that his victim functionally cannot (e.g., religious activity, free speech, getting married). In other words, our normal rule is not that we prevent a "killer" (even one in prison) from doing what his victim can no longer do.

In the end, it comes down to values. Do we think voting is an important part of citizenship and that are laws gain legitimacy based on how many citizens can participate or do we think voting is a privilege that should be provided only to whom we should decided is privileged enough. Critically, the US has a long history of denying the franchise to many deemed not worthy --- e.g., black men, men without property, women, those who could not pay poll taxes, late teens, etc --- so it is somewhat consistent his US history to limit the franchise this way. I just favor an expansive franchise because I think it always makes our democracy stronger to have more people involved.

Posted by: Doug B | Aug 26, 2019 8:17:14 AM

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