SOMEWHERE ON US-218 BETWEEN MOUNT PLEASANT AND KEOKUK, Iowa ― Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) said some nonviolent offenders should be allowed to vote while in prison, weighing in on a debate he had previously called a distraction from the larger goal of reducing the overall prison population.
“Do I think nonviolent drug offenders who are over-incarcerated should be able to vote in prison?” the 2020 Democratic presidential primary contender told HuffPost during an interview aboard his campaign RV. “Those folks, yes.”
The debate over prison voting has been central to the Democratic primary in recent weeks, helped by a push from the American Civil Liberties Union to place candidates on the record about the issue and by CNN’s questioning of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and others at recent town halls. But Booker maintained he wanted more debate and focus on how to reduce the overall prison population.
“Where I begin all of this isn’t the fight to get people in prison their voting rights. It’s to get them out of prison,” he said. “That’s my fight. We should have 50 percent reductions in incarceration, and that would still not be in line with the rest of the industrialized nations that do not incarcerate as many people.”
Booker noted 1 in 3 women in prison worldwide are in the United States, while the United States has only about 5% of the female population globally.
“Let’s start with the larger fight. Why are they going to prison in the first place for nonviolent drug offenses?” Booker asked. “Literally, now, two of the last three presidents have admitted to felony drug use, but they get to be president and low-income people, drug-addicted people, people with mental illness, they have to go to prison and not just lose their voting rights, but lose their absolute liberty.”
Sanders, whose home state of Vermont allows prisoners to vote, has backed expanding the policy nationally.
“The right to vote is what being an American citizen is about,” Sanders said at a campaign rally last month in Texas. “And if you commit a terrible crime, you are going to pay the price. But that does not mean that your right to participate in our democracy is taken away from you.”
But he’s found little company in the Democratic primary field. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren and South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg have both said they don’t support allowing those incarcerated to cast ballots.
Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro have also said nonviolent offenders should be able to vote in prison.