Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders continues to look for new openings to close the gap with Joe Biden in the polls and that means coming up with increasingly “progressive” positions on the issues of the day. The latest came during a recent appearance in Iowa, where Bernie is polling almost even with Biden. While speaking at a town hall, Sanders was asked about pending Iowa legislation that would restore voting rights to felons after they serve their time. But the question went one step further and asked if the candidate felt felons should never lose their voting rights in the first place and be able to cast their ballots from behind bars. The answer? Obviously, they should be able to do that. (Des Moines Register)
While Iowa struggles on whether to restore voting rights to felons who have completed their prison sentences, Sen. Bernie Sanders said people convicted of felonies should never lose access to the ballot box in the first place.
At a town hall meeting in Muscatine’s West Middle School gymnasium Saturday, the Vermont senator was asked whether the imprisoned should have the right to vote. Only his home state and Maine allow felons to vote from behind bars.
“I think that is absolutely the direction we should go,” he said.
Before getting to what Sanders is really saying here (and why), it’s worth pausing to consider the question at hand. Should felons be allowed to vote while in prison? I tend to agree with most of the comments James Joyner offered at Outside the Beltway. Most of the arguments in favor of this proposition are based on false assumptions and may lead to unintended consequences.
While it seems obvious that taxpaying citizens who have paid their debt to society ought to have their voting rights restored, it’s a harder call for those still serving their sentence. Not only have they failed to live up to their basic obligations as citizens but it’s simply not true that they are “still living in American society.” Indeed, the whole point of incarceration is to separate them from society.
At the local level, the effects of this could be bizarre, indeed. A small community that houses a penitentiary could theoretically have its affairs governed by the inmates.
Both of those are good points, but the second one is never brought up in these debates. We have a couple of prisons in upstate New York, for example, that are located out in the sticks near rather small towns. The inmates may indeed outnumber the local residents in some cases. Should their elections be decided by the people living behind bars and not even participating in the life of the community?
That carries over to Joyner’s first point. Felons are put in prison because they’ve demonstrated that they can’t be trusted to mix in with lawful, civil society. In that fashion, they are indeed “separate” from the rest of us and don’t need to be voting.
But Sanders may not be all that serious about this proposal himself. What’s most likely happening here is the same effect that was observed during the 2016 GOP primary. When the field gets this crowded, the candidates are going to need to outline more and more extreme proposals to catch the attention of the base. In 2016, I joked that when one candidate proposed building a wall on the southern border, another would say they wanted a moat in front of it. Then a third hopeful would propose filling the moat with sharks that have lasers mounted to their heads.
The Democrats put on a similar dance for liberals when the competition is stiff. First, they want voting rights for felons to be restored more quickly after they are released. Then they want it immediately after release. The only place to go from there is to let them vote from inside the prison. Perhaps they can pass their ballots out to the guards through the cell bars.