When Democratic presidential candidates suggested an openness to allowing incarcerated felons to vote in elections, it set off an uproar throughout the country.
Several Democrats vying for the party’s 2020 presidential nomination have suggested that Americans serving prison sentences shouldn’t lose their right to vote. Those candidates include former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke, California Sen. Kamala Harris, and Independent Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders.
Sanders himself even supports the idea of terrorists voting, including Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who killed three people and injured hundreds of others in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing. Tsarnaev currently sits on death row, but Sanders said on a CNN town hall last month that denying anybody the right to vote sets a bad precedent. (RELATED: Would Giving Felons The Right To Vote Make Them A Political Force?)
“I think the right to vote is inherent to our democracy, yes, even for terrible people, because once you start chipping away … you’re running down a slippery slope,” Sanders said. “I believe that people commit crimes, they pay the price, but when they get out of jail they certainly should have the right to vote. But I do believe that even if they are in jail paying their price to society, that should not take away their inherent American right to participate in our democracy.”
If incarcerated felons were to gain the right to vote, it would create a whole new voting block for candidates to have to court. So, would elected officials actually campaign in prisons?
“Oh Heavens no!” Lynn Haven, Florida Commissioner Judy Tinder told The Daily Caller. “I would never do that anyway.”
Tinder says she was supportive of a constitutional amendment to restore voting rights in the state of Florida to some felons who had already served their prison sentences, but said that those still in prison still have to pay their debt to society before they can become a participating member. The amendment passed with nearly 65% of the vote.
“I think they have to do their time, and I don’t think they should retain the right to vote,” she said.
Florida is home to one of the largest felon populations in the country, with nearly 10% of Sunshine State residents having been convicted of a felony offense.
Last week, the Florida state legislature passed a bill to restore voting rights to felons in accordance with Amendment 4. The bill required all felons to complete all the conditions of their sentences, including financial restitution, which some critics have likened to a poll tax.
“If you break the law, are incarcerated, and think you have the right to vote from behind a jail cell, you’re sadly mistaken,” Armani Salado, a Republican candidate for the U.S. House of Representative from Florida’s 7th congressional district told the Caller.
Salado also ripped former Democratic gubernatorial nominee Andrew Gillum for his plan to use unused campaign cash to register felons to vote.
“Failed governor candidate Andrew Gillum is doing a statewide tour to register newly-released felons to vote,” Salado said. “Instead of helping them get their feet on the ground and securing them a job and making them an asset to society, he’s politicizing them.”
There are also significant safety concerns when discussing elected officials potentially campaigning in prisons.
“Inside every prison, there is a culture: ‘You’re one of us or you’re not one of us,'” Republican New Mexico state Rep. Bill Rehm told the Caller. “You would have huge concerns about safety.”
A retired police officer, Rehm helped lead the opposition to House Bill (HB) 57, which he says would lead to policies that are soft on crime. (RELATED: Former Trump Prison Chief: The First Step Act Is Critical To Justice)
“If the prison is the residency, then I have to go and campaign inside that institution,” Rehm said. “The first thing they would ask for is less time.”
HB 57 was sponsored by liberal state Rep. Gail Chasey, a Democrat from Albuquerque. However, even with Democrats controlling large majorities in both state houses, as well as the governor’s mansion, the bill did not advance to a vote.
Baked into the conscious of this discussion is the politics of allowing felons to vote. A study conducted by authors Christopher Uggen and Jeff Manza suggested that for every 10 votes cast by felons, seven would have gone to the Democrats.
However, according to an analysis from Vox, the vast majority of ex-felons don’t vote. Of the 150,000 ex-felons who had their voting rights restored by former Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, Vox found that only 16% of black felons voted in 2016 presidential election, with just 12% of non-black felons voting.
Given the structure of the prison system and the brevity of Chasey’s legislation, it’s possible that incarcerated felons could become more of a political force. Would prisoners be bussed to polling stations? Would they vote absentee?
Rehm claims Chasey’s bill did not answer those questions.
“It wasn’t well-thought-out,” Rehm said.
But could a different version of the bill be brought up in the next session?
Critics of allowing prisoners to vote emphasize that crimes have consequences, one of which is the suspension of rights, including the right to vote.
“It was clear from the beginning of [the U.S.] that if you got convicted of a felony there were penalties, and one of those penalties is losing the right to vote,” Rehm said.
“People like the Boston bomber, the Parkland shooter, and so on gave up their right to vote when they decided to take the life and potential vote away from a human being,” Salado said.
It’s true that even in states like Florida, where 1.5 million felons will soon gain the right to vote, those imprisoned for the most grotesque crimes such as rape and murder are still restricted from voting.
Leading contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination are seeking to change that, and the consequences are potentially dramatic.