Bernie Sanders’ call for all prisoners to be able to vote sets him apart from almost every other 2020 Democrat

  • Sen. Bernie Sanders is the first 2020 Democratic presidential candidate who supports enfranchising people who are currently incarcerated.
  • Other Democratic candidates like Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris have said they support enfranchising people returning from incarceration, but have only said that prisoners voting should be part of the “conversation.”
  • Following the comments, Republicans have painted Sanders’s idea as “radical.”
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2020 Democrats across the board are in support of giving people convicted of felonies the right to vote after leaving prison, but Sen. Bernie Sanders on Monday took the idea a step further and separated himself from the rest of the field.

The Vermont senator is the only candidate vying for the 2020 Democratic nomination who supports enfranchising people who are currently behind bars, regardless of their crimes.

Much like the issue of reparations for descendants of slaves, this topic has driven a wedge between 2020 Democrats.

It’s estimated roughly 4.5 million people in the US have been affected by felony disenfranchisement laws. Laws vary from state to state on whether or not current or former inmates are allowed to vote. At present, Maine and Vermont are the only two states where currently incarcerated people are enfranchised.

During a CNN town hall on Monday, Sanders was asked if he’d even support voting rights for rapists or people like the Boston marathon bomber.

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“If somebody commits a serious crime, sexual assault, murder, they’re going to be punished. They may be in jail 10 years, 20 years, 50 years, their whole life,” Sanders said in response. “That’s what happens when you commit a serious crime.”

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

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Republicans quickly denounced the Vermont senator’s comments on voting rights for felons.

“Just when you thought it couldn’t get worse,” GOP Sen. Lindsey Graham said in a tweet, echoing McDaniel.

“@BernieSanders supports allowing rapists, murderers, and terrorists – like the Boston bomber and Dylan Roof, the individual who massacred 9 church-goers in Charleston, to vote from prison,” Graham added.

Amid the backlash against Sanders from the GOP, a number of 2020 Democratic candidates have addressed this issue, but none of them are willing to go as far as the Vermont senator. And some completely oppose what he’s proposed.

Here’s where they stand.

Sen. Kamala Harris, who also participated in Monday’s CNN town hall, said she supports re-enfranchising people after they have served time.

When asked if she supports enfranchising people who are currently behind bars, Harris did not go as far as Sanders declaration but did say “we should have that conversation.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts addressed the issue at a town hall in Iowa in late March and seems to be on the same page as Harris.

“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 have got a right to vote.”

“While they’re incarcerated, I think that’s something we can have more conversation about,” she added.

Meanwhile, Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Indiana, during Monday’s town hall said he does not support voting rights for currently incarcerated people but does condone enfranchising them after release.

South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg Scott Olson/Getty Images

“Part of the punishment when you’re convicted of a crime and incarcerated, is you lose certain rights, you lose your freedom,” Buttigieg said. “And I think during that time it does not make sense to make an exception for the right to vote.”

Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, who’s known for his heavy focus on criminal justice reform, has proposed a new Voting Rights Act that would enfranchise people returning from incarceration.

“For years, the right to vote for millions of Americans – disproportionately in communities of colour – has been under assault,” Booker said in a statement last week. “It is time for a new Voting Rights Act to finally put an end to systematic attempts to limit access to the ballot box and strip citizens of their constitutionally guaranteed right to vote. During my presidency, we will fight to protect and expand every American’s right to take part in our democracy.”

Booker has also criticised Sanders for focusing on enfranchising all prisoners.

The New Jersey senator told PBS NewsHour that while Sanders “wants to get involved in a conversation about whether Dylann Roof and the marathon bomber should have the right to vote” his own “focus” is instead on “liberating black and brown people and low-income people from prison, because we have a system in America…that treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent.”

Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke said he supports enfranchising nonviolent offenders, but not all inmates.

Beto O’Rourke. Michael Brochstein/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

“When you look at the population in prisons today, it is disproportionately comprised of people of colour; far too many there for nonviolent drug crimes. I want to make sure that time spent behind bars does not entail a stripping of your civic and constitutional rights,” O’Rourke said in Houston, Texas, on Wednesday. “I would think especially for nonviolent offenders that we rethink removing the right to vote, and allow everyone, or as many as possible, to participate in our democracy.”

“For violent criminals, it’s much harder for me to reach that conclusion,” O’Rourke added. “I feel that, at that point, you have broken a bond and a compact with your fellow Americans, and there has to be a consequence in civil life to that as well.”

Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro does not think “violent felons” who are currently incarcerated should be able to vote.

“I agree with those who have said that incarceration should not necessarily strip somebody of the right to vote,” Castro said in Houston on Wednesday. “There’s a history in this country, especially in the South, of African Americans being disenfranchised because they were over-incarcerated and that we need to change that.”

“Where I would draw the line is with violent felons,” Castro added.

He went on to say that he supports enfranchising people who have been incarcerated for “low-level offenses.”

Rep. Eric Swalwell of California rejected Sanders’ proposal to enfranchise all prisoners, contending that “some people…should never vote in America again.”

“Some people, like the Boston marathon bombers, those individuals should never vote in America again,” Swalwell told CNN on Tuesday, adding that “some people are just irredeemable.”

Swalwell also said, however, that for “non-violent, non-sexual, not serious people, we should reform we should reform our criminal justice system so they’re not getting felony convictions the first place and send them to job training or addiction training.”

“And for those who are serving now, non-violent, non-sexual, non- serious we should get them out of prison, get them back on the population, restore their voting rights,” he added.