Cory Booker Sidesteps Debate Over Letting Prisoners Vote, Calls It 'Frustrating'

“My focus is tearing down the system of mass incarceration," the Democratic candidate said, so fewer people are behind bars.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said Monday that he was frustrated by the conversation around whether people convicted of felonies should be able to vote in prison, calling it a distraction from deeper inequities in the criminal justice system.

Booker’s comments come amid a debate among Democrats running for president on whether the incarcerated should be allowed to vote. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) is the only candidate so far who publicly supports letting people cast ballots while they’re behind bars. Sens. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) and Kamala Harris (Calif.) have said they are open to considering the idea, while former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (Texas) and Julián Castro, the former Housing and Urban Development secretary, have said they are open to letting non-violent felons vote.

Almost all the Democratic candidates, including Booker, support restoring voting rights when someone either is released from prison or completes their criminal sentence entirely.

Asked whether he agreed with Sanders, Booker told “PBS Newshour” on Monday that the debate about voting in prison shifts focus away from the greater problem of why so many people are incarcerated in the first place.

“I just think that that is a frustrating debate that we seem to now be having,” said the senator, who has made criminal justice reform a big part of his presidential campaign.

“If Bernie Sanders wants to get involved in a conversation about whether Dylann Roof and the marathon bomber should have the right to vote, my focus is liberating black and brown people and low-income people from prison, because we have a system in America, as Bryan Stevenson says, that treats you better if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent,” Booker added, referring to the head of the Equal Justice Initiative.

“My focus is tearing down the system of mass incarceration so that we don’t even have to have the debate about people’s voting rights ― because they’re not going to prison in the first place. People that don’t belong there are there. And I’m going to stop that as president,” Booker said.

Booker’s comments mark a break from many civil rights groups and activists who want the presidential candidates to commit to ending felon disenfranchisement entirely. More than 70 civil rights groups signed an open letter to the candidates on Tuesday asking them to commit to ending felon disenfranchisement, saying it was “as senseless as it is cruel.”

Two states ― Maine and Vermont ― already allow incarcerated people to vote, as do many other countries.

Amani Sawari, a national organizer with the Right2Vote campaign, which supports ending felon disenfranchisement, said she was “enraged” by Booker’s comments. Prisoners themselves helped jumpstart the debate about whether they should be able to vote by making the demand during a nationwide strike last year, she said.

“He’s diverting rather than responding to it. He hasn’t said yes or no. He hasn’t said if he’s in favor of having voting rights or not,” Sawari told HuffPost. “I think a lot of people are sort of put off by giving prisoners a little bit of ownership. But it’s not as if we’re giving them ownership over everything ― we’re giving them ownership over their voice. And over their conditions.”

The American Civil Liberties Union is one of the groups pushing candidates on this issue as part of a $30 million spending effort for the 2020 election cycle. The organization is concerned that prisoners are getting left out of the national discussion about expanding voting rights, Ronald Newman, the ACLU’s political director, said last week.

“If we’re going to have this big, open, comprehensive conversation about improving the voting rights situation in the United States and then completely pretend as if this other piece wasn’t out there, you’d end up in a situation where you’d effectively perhaps have a new line, but a line that would exclude this category of folks,” he said.

And Taina Vargas-Edmond, executive director of Initiate Justice, argued that “it’s misleading to suggest that allowing prisoners to vote and improving the criminal justice system were separate issues.”

“I believe part of ending mass incarceration is restoring voting rights to people in prison,” Vargas-Edmond said. “The fight to end mass incarceration and restore voting rights to those impacted by it are not mutually exclusive. Improving our justice system will require the voices of the people harmed by it.”

The story has been updated with comment from Taina Vargas-Edmond.

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