Bernie Sanders, the senior US Senator from Vermont and presidential candidate, has become the first Democrat running for the White House to champion for voting rights for people who are currently behind bars. During a town hall meeting in Muscatine, Iowa, Sanders was asked by a member of the public whether people who are incarcerated should be allowed to vote. His response couldn’t be clearer. Sanders noted that this is the “direction” that the United States should be going. He also added that the fact that people are already serving time in jail for various crimes is punishment enough.
Sanders observed that they are doing things differently in Vermont where felons still have their voting rights. He doesn’t see why this should not be applied to the whole nation. Despite this, there are still many states in the US that have tough laws with regards to voting rights for incarcerated individuals. In Alabama, Tennessee, and Mississippi, for example, people convicted of murder or rape are given a lifetime voting ban. In Iowa and Kentucky, residents with felony records are barred from voting for all their life unless they get personal authorization from the governor.
A decision to let inmates vote could have massive repercussions on US elections. According to a 2018 report published by The Sentencing Project, a nonprofit focusing on criminal justice reforms in the US, there are at least 6.1 million people around the country that are not allowed to vote because of “felony disenfranchisement.” This means that these people cannot vote because of the fact that they have been convicted of a felony.
Bernie Sanders is not the only one who has expressed support for changing this. Senator Elizabeth Warren, another Democratic presidential candidate for 2020, has also said that limitations on voting rights for people with felonies should be lifted. But unlike Sanders, Warren believes that voting rights should only be restored when the affected people have completed their sentences. The debate about whether felons should vote is something that has been present on the public sphere over the last few years. Different states have different legal limitations for convicted people who want to participate in elections. If indeed this trend is to be reversed, individual states will have to take all the initiative on their own and do it.
Many who favor changes to such limitations present a very simple argument. Like Sanders and Warren, they believe that spending time in prison should be viewed as enough punishment for whatever crimes anyone has committed. Restricting their voting rights just adds salt to injury. Besides, people like Warren and many others who support this viewpoint believe that once your debt is paid to society, it should be easier to transition back to life as a normal citizen and this involves voting.
However, opponents of these reforms note that voting restrictions on felons are similar to other limitations such as age, sanity, residency etc. Most argue that convicted felons, by virtue of committing a crime, have demonstrated poor judgment and shouldn’t be allowed to vote. All these viewpoints have a lot of logic in them but changes to the law in individual states will not happen that soon.