On Monday night, candidates for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination split over the issue of whether or not incarcerated felons like the Boston Marathon bomber or those convicted of sexual assault should have the right to vote while serving their prison sentence. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) said they should, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) said she’s open to the idea, and only South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg responded with a firm no.
A Harvard University student asked Sanders the question in his CNN town hall, the first of three events in a row.
“Senator Sanders, you have said that you believe people with felony records should be allowed to vote while in prison. Does this mean that you would support enfranchising people like the Boston Marathon bomber, a convicted terrorist and murderer?” the student asked. “Do you think that those convicted of sexual assault should have the ability to vote for politicians that would have a direct impact on women’s rights?”
Sanders effectively said yes. “What our campaign is about and what I believe is creating a vibrant democracy,” the senator responded. He suggested that if more millennials voted, “we would transform this nation.”
“But to get to your point, we live in a moment where cowardly Republican governors are trying to suppress the vote. Right here in New Hampshire, the legislature and the governor are working hard to make it more difficult for young people to vote. To me, that is an incredibly undemocratic, un-American process,” Sanders agued. “As it happens in my own state in Vermont, from the very first days of our state’s history, what our state’s constitution says is that everybody can vote. That is true. Some people in jail can vote.”
“Now here is my view. If somebody commits a serious crime — sexual assault, murder — they’re going to be punished,” Sanders argued. “They may be in jail for 10 years, 20 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, 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,” he said.
Later in the town hall, Sanders doubled down when CNN’s Chris Cuomo suggested he was “writing an opposition ad against you by saying you think the Boston Marathon bomber should vote — not after he pays his debt to society — but while he’s in jail.”
“Well, Chris, I think I have written many 30-second opposition ads throughout my life. This will be just another one,” Sanders quipped. “But I do believe, look, 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 believing, that’s what our Republican governors all over this country are doing.”
“They’re coming 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 it. This is a democracy, we’ve got to expand that democracy and I believe every single person does have the right to vote,” the senator concluded.
— America Rising (@AmericaRising) April 23, 2019
As for New Hampshire, Republicans passed bills that ensure that voters live where they say they live. Democrats claim these bills make it harder for poor people to vote, but they also cut down on potential voter fraud. Sanders’ suggestion that Republican efforts to fight voter fraud are racially or economically motivated are disgusting, but he was far from alone in making such accusations.
In the next town hall, CNN’s Don Lemon asked Kamala Harris if she agrees that “the right to vote is inherent in our democracy, yes even for terrible people.”
“I agree that the right to vote is one of the very important components of citizenship and it is something that people should not be stripped of needlessly, which is why I have been long an advocate of making sure that the formerly incarcerated are not denied a right to vote, which is the case in so many states in our country,” Harris said. “In some states permanently deprived of the right to vote. And these are policies that go back to Jim Crow, these are policies that go back to the heart of policies that have been about disenfranchisement, policies that continue until today and we need to take it seriously.”
While some southern states did indeed remove voting rights from felons as part of a racist strategy against black Americans, many non-southern states also have similar laws without such history, and the policies are applied equally regardless of race.
When Lemon pressed Harris on specifics, she signaled her openness to letting convicted terrorists vote while in prison.
“But people who are convicted, in prison, like the Boston Marathon bomber, on death row, people who are convicted of sexual assault, they should be able to vote?” Lemon asked.
“I think we should have that conversation,” Harris replied.
While staring at the floor to avoid eye contact with anyone, Kamala Harris says the Boston bomber should be able to vote. pic.twitter.com/ZPpIjWnK1B
— Caleb Hull (@CalebJHull) April 23, 2019
The issue also came up in the third CNN town hall with Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana.
CNN’s Anderson Cooper noted that Sanders “said he’s in favor of felons being able to vote even while serving their prison terms. … He said the right to vote is inherent to our democracy, yes even for terrible people. Senator Kamala Harris just said we should have that conversation. … What do you think?”
“While incarcerated? No, I don’t think so,” Buttigieg definitively said, to loud applause.
“I do believe that when you are out, when you have served your sentence, that part of being restored to society is that you are part of the political life of this nation again. And one of the things that needs to be restored is your right to vote,” the mayor added.
“As you know, some states and communities do it, some don’t. I think we’d be a better country if everybody did it, and frankly, I think the motivations for preventing that kind of re-enfranchisement in some cases have to do with one side of the aisle noticing that they politically benefit from that and that’s got some racial layers to it,” he added, subtly attacking Republicans. “That’s one of many reasons that I believe that re-enfranchisement upon release is important. ”
“But part of the punishment when you are convicted of a crime and you’re incarcerated is you lose certain rights. You lose your freedom. And I think during that period, it does not make sense to have an exception for the right to vote,” Buttigieg said.
— CNN Politics (@CNNPolitics) April 23, 2019
Even though not every 2020 candidate supported giving the Boston Marathon bomber and incarcerated felons the right to vote, each of them tied any restriction on voting to Republican racism.
It is extremely worrisome that voting for incarcerated felons like the Boston Marathon bomber has emerged as a wedge issue in the 2020 Democratic primary. That’s how radical these Democrats are.
Follow Tyler O’Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.