The Appeal asked Bernie Sanders about felony disenfranchisement and voting from prison. “The right to vote is inalienable to my mind whether you’re in jail or any place else,” he said.
The debate on felony disenfranchisement broke through in the Democratic presidential primary this month, when Senator Bernie Sanders stated that he favors allowing people with felony convictions to vote, including while they are incarcerated. Other candidates have said that they favor restoring people’s right to vote once they are released from prison, or at a later stage.
State-level reform efforts have accelerated as well. Maine and Vermont, which Sanders represents, have no felony disenfranchisement at all. But 48 states prevent at least some people with felony convictions from voting. In the more restrictive states, formerly incarcerated people may never regain the right to vote. Other states allow people to vote after they are released from prison, or require them to complete their probation or parole sentence. In 2018, more than 60 percent of Florida voters supported Amendment 4, which provided that people should regain their voting rights when they complete their sentence for most felony convictions. That victory renewed efforts to restore voting rights post-sentence in states that still impose lifetime bans on voting, such as Iowa or Mississippi. And in at least seven states, including Hawaii and Massachusetts, lawmakers have introduced bills to emulate Maine and Vermont and altogether eliminate disenfranchisement.
The Appeal: Political Report talked to Sanders about his position on voting rights, why he supports ending felony disenfranchisement, and what he sees in Vermont, where people can vote from prison. The interview has been condensed and lightly edited.
Q: You have called for eliminating felony disenfranchisement and allowing people to vote whether they are outside of prison or incarcerated. Others have proposed reforms that would shrink but not end felony disenfranchisement. How would you explain the position you’ve taken?
A: I’ll tell you why. Right now what we are seeing is that Republican governors and legislators are acting in an incredibly cowardly way in trying to suppress the vote. We’re seeing this all over the country. The governor’s race in Georgia was in my view won by a Republican as a result of voter suppression. I was just in New Hampshire where Republicans passed legislation to make it much more difficult for young people and workers in New Hampshire who are going to be there for three or four years to participate in elections. In Florida, the Republican legislature is trying to undermine what 64 percent of the people there said, that felons have a right to vote. What you are seeing right now is cowardly Republicans working overtime trying to deny millions of people the right to vote.
I happen to believe, and this is the essence of my position, that if you are an American citizen, whether you’re rich, whether you’re poor, whether you’re black, whether you’re white, whether you are a really wonderful person or not such a nice person, but because you are an American citizen you have the inalienable right to vote.
Once you take that right away from people who commit a crime and you say you can’t vote because you committed the crime, then you are moving down a very slippery slope. I think you understand the history of voter suppression in this country, going back to the founding of this country. We have wonderful words in the documents of the Founding Fathers, but the truth is wealthy white men were the only people who could vote. Poor people couldn’t vote. People of color, needless to say, couldn’t vote, they were in slavery. Native Americans couldn’t vote. Women couldn’t vote. And the struggle over the last several centuries has been to expand that voting right.
If you commit a crime, you go to jail. I support that, everybody supports it. If you commit a horrible crime, you go to jail for a long time. Your punishment is that you are in jail, and that is a serious punishment. But the fact is you remain an American citizen. And the right to vote is inalienable to my mind whether you’re in jail or any place else. And that is what motivates me.
It appears that you are saying that the issue of disenfranchisement gets to how we treat incarcerated people more generally. Could you explain why you think punishment could or should be disentangled from the right to vote?
That’s right, and that’s a whole broader question. Let me also say, before I answer your good question, that we understand—the facts are very clear—that what Reconstruction in this country was about, way back in the 1870s and forward, throughout our history, was a deliberate effort to make sure that African Americans didn’t have the right to vote. They came out with all kinds of crimes that were felonies; you arrested African Americans, and you denied them the right to vote. That is not debated, that is historical fact, that the criminal justice system was used to deny African Americans the right to vote.
Today we have over 4 million people who are denied the right to vote. The debate that is taking place, and I think we have advanced that debate a little bit, but the debate that is taking place is, a person commits a crime, they’re in jail for 20 years, they get out, do they have the right to vote? Well, some states say yes, some states say no—and, by the way, even for the states that say yes, not so many people who serve time in jail even know the process by which they can register to vote. So the debate that’s going on in Florida, that was a very big state and a great victory, which the legislature is now trying to rescind. But I think more and more people are recognizing that felons have the right to vote if they serve their time.
All that I’m saying is, I think that principle can take a step forward, and I think if you are an American citizen you have the right to vote.
Vermont already has no felony disenfranchisement. How does your experience in Vermont inform how you believe we should think about the issue at the national level?
I think in Vermont, honestly, it is a non-issue. To be honest with you, I cannot even tell you how many people in prison in Vermont vote. It’s just not an issue that’s discussed, it’s not a big deal. I suspect the same is true in Maine.
What is interesting is that people say, ‘Oh my god, Bernie Sanders came up with this radical idea.’ Well, it exists in countries all over the world. I am talking to you in Burlington, Vermont, and Canada is 50 miles north of here. In Canada, people in jail can vote. In Israel, people in jail can vote. In fact, in several dozen countries, people around the world can vote. So this is not a radical idea. Countries around the world understand that because you are a citizen of that country, even if you committed a crime and even if you’re in jail, the right to vote should not be taken away from you. So this is not a terribly radical idea.
Why do you think this issue has percolated to such an extent in this presidential election?
I’ll tell you why, very simply. Because the Republicans are now engaged in massive voter suppression. They understand that given the nature of their reactionary agenda, the only way they’re going to win elections is by denying American citizens the right to vote. They’re going to come up with different ideas. In Florida, now they’re saying is that if you serve time and you get out, you have to pay off a substantial amount of money which they don’t have. In New Hampshire, it’s going to take young people money to get a driver’s licenses to vote. It’s very clear. All over the country, in one way or another, states are working to make it harder for people to vote.
I think the time is long overdue for us to say that if you’re a citizen of this country, you are 18 years of age, you have the right to vote. If you’re in jail, or in any other place. The reason this has percolated now is precisely in response to Republican efforts to undermine American democracy and to deny people the right to vote. I want the United States to have the highest voter turnout rate of any country on earth, not one of the lowest.
What do you think can be done about this issue at the federal level?
It’s the Congress and the president that have control over federal prisons. Now more people are in state prisons and local jails and so forth, but we can become a model for this country by immediately passing legislation to get people in federal prisons the right to vote.