Bernie Sanders over the weekend said that more states should let people with felony records vote while they’re in prison, Kevin Hardy reported for the Des Moines Register.
“I think that is absolutely the direction we should go,” Sanders said during a town hall in Muscatine, Iowa, on Saturday, after he was asked if people should be allowed to vote from prison.
Sanders’s home state of Vermont, which he represents as a US senator, is one of two that lets people vote while they’re in prison. Most states prohibit people from voting while they’re in prison, on parole, or on probation. And two — including Iowa, where Sanders was speaking — bar people with felony convictions from voting even after they’ve completed their prison, parole, or probation sentences.
“You’re paying a price, you committed a crime, you’re in jail. That’s bad,” Sanders said. “But you’re still living in American society and you have a right to vote. I believe in that, yes, I do.”
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds, a Republican, is pushing for that to change, advocating for a constitutional amendment to let people vote after they’ve completed their sentences. But the Republican-controlled Iowa Senate has blocked the proposal.
Sanders isn’t the only Democratic candidate for president speaking on this issue. Last month, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), one of Sanders’s opponents, said at an Iowa town hall in Storm Lake that people should be allowed to vote after they complete their sentences. “While they’re incarcerated, I think that’s something we can have more conversation about,” she added.
As of 2016, 6.1 million people were prevented from voting due to a felony conviction, the Sentencing Project found. But that was before Florida voters elected to let most people with felony records vote after they complete their sentences — letting more than 1 million people vote again.
Since black Americans are more likely to go to prison, these laws have a disproportionate impact on black voters: While the overall disenfranchisement rate didn’t break 11 percent for any state, more than 20 percent of black voters were disenfranchised in Florida, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Virginia in 2016.
Courts, including the US Supreme Court, have generally upheld such voting restrictions under the US Constitution’s 14th Amendment, which suggests that the government may abridge the right to vote due to “participation in rebellion, or other crime.”
The voting prohibition is one of the various collateral consequences of prison, which include restrictions on employment and bans on receiving welfare benefits, accessing public housing, or qualifying for student loans for higher education.
So not only does prison deprive people of their freedoms while they’re incarcerated, but the punishment can follow people for the rest of their lives.
The extended punishment can sometimes make it much more difficult for people with criminal records to regain rights and benefits that would allow them to get a job or an education, which might leave them with few options but crime to make ends meet. And since black people are more likely to be affected, collateral effects may help perpetuate crime in black communities in particular.
Sanders, who’s spoken out against mass incarceration since at least 1991, wants to change that.