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Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders and Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap Discuss Prison Voting

In voting rights special, we also bring you the latest on rights restoration reforms nationwide

In This Edition of the Political Report

May 2, 2019: Efforts to expand voting rights have accelerated in states over the last year, as The Appeal has chronicled. Now, the issue has percolated at the presidential level. This special edition of the Political Report brings you two interviews and an update on legislative developments to keep track of the latest on felony disenfranchisement.

  • Legislative roundup: Nebraska won’t abolish death penalty, Texas lieutenant governor says he will sink marijuana bill, and more

An interview with Bernie Sanders: “The right to vote to me is inalienable whether you’re in jail or any place else”

The debate on felony disenfranchisement broke through in the Democratic presidential primary last 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.

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. You can read the full interview here. Below is a lightly edited excerpt.

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?

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.

You can read the rest of this interview with Sanders here.

Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap explains how prison voting works there

“I think in Vermont, honestly, it is a non-issue,” Sanders said of prison voting in his interview with the Political Report (see above). “I suspect the same is true in Maine.”

Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap, who runs Maine’s elections, talked to me about how prison voting works there.

While incarcerated, voting-age U.S. citizens can register at the last address at which they resided (if that address is in Maine) and then vote via absentee ballot. Dunlap explained how Maine ensures that prisoners can register and vote, and he also answered questions on whether it could do more by providing postage and implementing automatic voter registration. Dunlap also cast universal suffrage as a way to keep incarcerated people “connected to the real world,” and to remember that “they’re still people, they’re still human beings, they’re still American citizens.” Such connections are like a “sliver of light,” he said.

The full interview is available here. Below are lightly edited excerpts.

So people are registered to vote at their address prior to their incarceration, rather than at the place where they’re incarcerated. Why do you think this is important for Maine to do?

What it prevents is having an unnatural bubble of population emerge at the site where the correctional facility is. … When we are doing redistricting, the people in the prison are counted as a part of the population of their hometown, not the population of where the jail is located. If you, say, lived in the town of Bangor and were never registered to vote, we have a process for getting you registered.

It’s actually a little sad. Somebody may not have participated in elections in quite a while, and they decide they want to participate. You pull them up in the system, and it’ll say something like 425 Wagon Wheel Lane, and they’ll say they lived at 675, and I say I don’t have that, this is what I have in the system, and they shrug and say I’ve been here so long I don’t remember where I used to live. It could very well be that nobody in the family is still there, the house itself may be gone, but that was their last address and they still use it. If you think about that, what was your childhood telephone number? Some of those people are in here for decades upon decades, and they forget the little details about their street address and things like that. We can look it up, we can get their registration updated or start a new registration if they’re Maine residents, and we can get them involved in the process.

Does the state have any estimates of the turnout rate or participation level in prisons, and if not, do you have a sense of the extent of participation?

We don’t have any numerical way to track the number of absentee ballots that are requested via the prisons and returned because that’s all done at the town level. Even the towns don’t track specifically where they come from and where they are returned to. I will tell you that when we go down there, there’s usually a pretty big line of inmates looking to participate. I wouldn’t say we get a huge percentage of them, maybe a third, but it’s still a pretty significant number. And frankly, if one American wants to vote that’s significant enough for me.

You can read the rest of this interview with Dunlap here.

Voting rights roundup: Colorado and Nevada move to scale back disenfranchisement, but Massachusetts buries proposal

Colorado is one signature away from expanding voting rights and scaling back disenfranchisement.

The state disenfranchises people convicted of a felony while they are incarcerated and while they are on parole. House Bill 1266, introduced by Representative Leslie Herod and Senator Stephen Fenberg, would remove the latter restriction. It would provide that people be able to exercise their right to vote upon release from incarceration. More than 9,000 individuals who are on parole would be affected.

The legislation passed both legislative chambers, and is now on Democratic Governor Jared Polis’s desk.  If Polis signs it into law, Colorado would become the 15th state to restore people’s voting rights immediately upon release from incarceration. (That’s in addition to Maine and Vermont, which have no felony disenfranchisement, including while one is incarcerated.)

This list, which includes Ohio and Indiana but not bluer states such as California or Washington, has expanded by just one state since 2006. But it could gain multiple new members this year.

The Nevada Assembly adopted a similar bill last week to restore voting rights upon release from incarceration, sending it to the Senate. This reform would get to the same point as Colorado’s through a bigger jump since Nevada currently has some of the country’s harshest laws. It is one of 12 states where people remain disenfranchised after completing their sentences. A reform that took effect this year scaled back the permanent nature of disenfranchisement, as I wrote in December, but did not abolish it.  

Other legislatures have proved less receptive to proposals to expand voter eligibility.

  • Constitutional amendments that would enable people to vote when they complete their sentences derailed in Iowa and Mississippi. Iowa and Mississippi have some of the country’s most expansive lifetime bans on voting.

  • Florida significantly expanded eligibility this year. As a result of Amendment 4’s win in November, approximately 1.4 million people who had completed their sentences became eligible to register in January, and the state has even held some local elections since. But the state legislature is poised to restrict the reform’s implementation this week, and again disenfranchise some of these individuals. Kira Lerner reported on the latest from Florida in The Appeal on Wednesday.

  • Democratic legislatures killed legislation to enfranchise people immediately upon their release in New Mexico and in Washington.

  • Hawaii and Massachusetts, which already restore people’s rights upon their release, were considering proposals to abolish disenfranchisement and to allow people with felony convictions to vote from prison. Both proposals failed this year.

I reported on Hawaii’s abolition legislation in March, but Massachusetts’s proposed reform (S.12) failed just last week, when the Joint Committee on Election Laws effectively voted to table it. The committee vote is not public, and only three of its 17 members answered my multiple requests for comment about how they voted. All those who replied told me that they supported the reform: state Representatives Russell Holmes and Lindsay Sabadosa, and state Senator James Eldridge. “It’s very easy for prisoners to lose hope and their connection to society, and restoring the right to vote would provide an enhanced capacity to stay connected,” Eldridge told me. 

Massachusetts activists have taken issue with the secrecy of this process. “When legislators vote behind closed doors to continue to a racist history of disenfranchisement, with no public record of how they voted for their constituents, that’s a fundamental failure of democracy,” Jonathan Cohn, an organizer with Progressive Mass, a group that supported the constitutional amendment, told me in a written message.

The Emancipation Initiative and the Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign, Massachusetts-based groups that are active on this issue, are planning a citizen-initiated ballot initiative to abolish disenfranchisement; they launched the effort at an April 1 event in Boston. Rachel Corey, an organizer with the Emancipation Initiative, confirmed that this remained an objective. “The ultimate decision makers on a constitutional amendment are the citizens of the state,” she said, “so we also want to raise awareness about the issue through signature collection.”

Multiple bills to expand eligibility are still pending in California, Connecticut (Senate Bills 25, 53, and 155), Nebraska (Legislative Bills 83 and 91) and New Jersey (SB 2100, Assembly Bill 3456); none has yet received a floor vote, though some have received a hearing and some have leadership support.

The full, standalone version of this article is available here.

Legislative roundup: Nebraska won’t abolish death penalty, Texas lieutenant governor says he will sink marijuana bill

Nebraska: Nebraska lawmakers rejected legislation to abolish the death penalty on a vote of 25 to 17; the bill had advanced past the committee stage last month. The state legislature abolished the death penalty in 2015, but state voters then reinstated it in a 2016 referendum. Senator Ernie Chambers has been the primary sponsor of these repeated efforts. This leaves New Hampshire and Washington as the two states that may adopt abolition legislation this year.

Oregon: Senate Bill 1008, Oregon’s major legislative package reforming the juvenile system, is still alive. But the Portland Mercury reports that it is under major threat from the Oregon District Attorneys Association. The group, which lobbies in the name of state prosecutors, is taking particular aim at the proposal to lift the mandate that minors charged with higher-level offenses must be tried as adults starting at age 15. SB 1008 would also abolish juvenile life without parole sentences and expand opportunities for early release for people convicted while minors.

Texas: The House adopted legislation this week to reduce penalties for possession of less than 2 ounces of marijuana. But Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick has since made it clear he intends to bury this bill in the Senate, and he does control the upper chamber’s agenda. The bill is already a watered-down version of an earlier decriminalization proposal.

Nationwide: A number of bills that I have written about recently are still sitting on a governors’ desks. They include a Colorado bill enfranchising people who are on parole, a New Hampshire bill abolishing the death penalty, and a Montana bill to stop the suspension of driver’s licenses for nonpayment of court fines and fees.

You can visit our legislative roundup page for more on legislative developments.

Thanks for reading. We’ll see you in two weeks!