More than 70 civil rights and advocacy groups are urging candidates seeking the presidency to allow people to vote while they are incarcerated, signing an open letter on Tuesday to push an issue already dividing the Democratic field.
Only Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) has said people incarcerated should be able to vote. He is the only 2020 presidential candidate so far to take that stance.
Democratic Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Kamala Harris (Calif.) both have indicated they’re open to the idea, but want to focus on restoring voting rights to people after they’re released from prison. Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke and Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julian Castro said last week they are open to allowing nonviolent felons to vote in prison. Almost all of the other candidates seeking the Democratic nomination say they support restoring voting rights once someone either is released from prison or completes his or her criminal sentence.
Seventy-three groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Southern Poverty Law Center and Greenpeace signed the letter. The longstanding practice of banning people convicted of felonies from voting in the United States is “as senseless as it is cruel,” the groups wrote. They say the practice is tinged with racism and that many felon disenfranchisement laws were drafted in the Jim Crow south as a way to keep African American men from voting after they gained the right to vote.
“Felony disenfranchisement is not just anti-democratic and bad for public safety, it is an unpopular practice that sprang from the most shameful era of American history, a vestige of our past wildly out of step with international norms. And now is the moment for its abandonment,” the letter says. “This growing movement against felony disenfranchisement is a promising endorsement of American values, but it raises a key question: Why disenfranchise people in prison to begin with? Why not let them continue to vote while they are incarcerated?”
“Felony disenfranchisement is not just anti-democratic and bad for public safety, it is an unpopular practice that sprang from the most shameful era of American history.”
President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have already seized on candidates’ willingness to let people with felonies vote in prison. Both pointed to recent Sanders comments saying even the Boston Marathon bomber should be able to vote in prison.
“Let the Boston bomber vote — he should be voting, right?” Trump said last week during a speech at the annual National Rifle Association convention. “I don’t think so. Let terrorists that are in prison vote, I don’t think so. Can you believe it? But this is where some of these people are coming from.”
“The same people who want to restrict the right to keep and bear arms of law-abiding citizens believe the Boston Marathon bomber should be given the right to vote on death row. I got news for you Bernie, not on our watch,” Pence said in a speech at the convention. “Violent, convicted felons, murderers and terrorists should never be given the right to vote in prison. Not now, not ever.”
Although Trump and Pence have suggested that ending felon disenfranchisement is a fringe idea, two states in the country ― Maine and Vermont ― already allow incarcerated people to vote. A number of other countries allow at least some people to vote while they imprisoned. Very few countries are like the United States and disenfranchise people after they are released from prison.
Three states ― Iowa, Kentucky and Virginia ― permanently bar people with felony convictions from voting. The other 45 allow people to vote at some point after they leave prison, though the policies vary widely by state and can be extremely confusing to figure out.
The Sentencing Project estimated in 2016 there were 1.3 million people in prison disenfranchised because of a felony conviction.
“I believe prisoners are the most oppressed and most marginalized group that we have in the United States.”
The president’s power to enfranchise people in prison is limited because the 14th Amendment gives states the power to disenfranchise citizens. But activists say that just having the issue discussed at the national level elevates the conversation around the topic and forces politicians to publicly defend their position.
“I believe prisoners are the most oppressed and most marginalized group that we have in the United States,” Amani Sawari, the national coordinator of the Right2Vote Campaign, one of the groups that signed the letter, said in an interview. “So when we raise the bar and we say, ‘Hey we want their voice to be heard,’ we want them to have the right to vote, we want them to be valued and humanized in our society, we also raise the bar for all the people on probation and parole.”
While activists say felon disenfranchisement has been overlooked for decades, there has been recent movement on the issue. Florida overwhelmingly voted in November to repeal the state’s lifetime ban on voting for people with felony convictions, a change that could impact up to 1.4 million people. Around two dozen states have changed their policies around felon disenfranchisement since 1997, according to an October 2018 estimate from The Sentencing Project.
Read the entire open letter to presidential candidates here.