I have not been blogging all that much about some of the notable criminal justice positions and statements by the huge field of candidates seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination to run for US President. But this press piece about an exchange involving Senator Bernie Sanders at a town hall last night prompted the question that is the title of this post. The headline of The Hill piece is catchy, “Sanders: Boston Marathon bomber should be able to vote from prison,” and here is its account of the exchange:
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) argued Monday that all prisoners, including domestic terrorists such as the Boston Marathon bomber, should have the right to vote while they are incarcerated.
Speaking at a CNN town hall, Sanders was asked if he believes the right to vote should extend to serious criminals, such as Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who is in prison and has been sentenced to death. “If somebody commits a serious crime, sexual assault, murder, they’re going to be punished,” Sanders said. “They may be in jail for 10 years, 20 years, 50 years, their whole lives. That’s what happens when you commit a serious crime.”
“But I think the right to vote is inherent to our democracy,” he continued. “Yes, even for terrible people, because once you start chipping away … you’re running down a slippery slope. … I do believe that even if they are in jail, they’re paying their price to society, but that should not take away their inherent American right to participate in our democracy.”
Earlier this month, Sanders called for more states to join Vermont and Maine in allowing imprisoned felons to vote…. “This is what I believe. Do you believe in democracy? Do you believe that every single American 18 years of age or older who is an American citizen has the right to vote?”
“Once you start chipping away at that … that’s what our Republican governors all over this country are doing. They come up with all kinds of excuses why people of color, young people, poor people can’t vote. And I will do everything I can to resist that,” he added.
Regular readers likely know that I see no good reason to disenfranchise categorically any class of competent voters (and my basic thinking on this front was explained in this Big Think piece years ago headlined “Let Prisoners Vote”). But, in the context of discussions about the positions of potential candidates for President, anyone call for expanding suffrage ought to be asked about how the federal government can and should seek to push states into ensuring more people have the right to vote. This can be done, of course, through a constitutional amendment or through various forms of federal legislation that might try to force or prod states into changing their voting eligibility rules.
I would really like to know if Senator Sanders (or any other presidential contender) is prepared to move forward with a formal federal plan that would go beyond just “call[ing] for more states to join Vermont and Maine in allowing imprisoned felons to vote.” Because I am not a voting rights expert, I am not sure what might be the best ways, legally and politically, to make progress on this front. But I hope the question in the title of this post might be further explored on the campaign trail over the next 18 months.