Voting in prison seems like a fringe idea to almost all of the candidates seeking the 2020 presidential nomination.
Aside from Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who has embraced the idea, most 2020 candidates have treated it as an extreme position. While Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) say they are open to it, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) told PBS Newshour last month he found the debate over the issue “frustrating.”
Former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-Texas) and Julián Castro, the former Housing and Urban Development secretary, say they support allowing nonviolent felons to vote, but not violent ones. Other candidates say they believe someone should be able to vote when they’re released from prison or have completed their sentences, but not while they’re incarcerated.
President Donald Trump and other Republicans appear eager to attack Democratic candidates over the issue, framing voting rights for people with felony convictions as a fringe and dangerous idea. At the NRA convention in April, Trump emphasized that convicted terrorists and mass shooters would be able to vote.
As candidates and voters are still working out the top issues of the 2020 election, it’s worth looking at how a practice so controversial nationally has already existed with little controversy in two states.
Convicted felons have long had the right to vote in Vermont and Maine. It’s not something that’s been particularly polarizing, people in both states say.
“We don’t hear much about it, quite frankly,” said Randall Liberty, the commissioner of the Maine Department of Corrections. “It’s a foundational right. It’s a right as an American to vote.”
Inmates who are residents of either state vote with an absentee ballot, using the address where they last lived prior to going to prison (they can also register to vote at that address while they’re in prison). It’s not a burden to ensure that inmates vote, Liberty told HuffPost. Corrections officials facilitate visits from advocacy groups who help prisoners register and request ballots.
State election officials don’t distinguish absentee ballots from prisoners from any other ballot, so they don’t have data on how many prisoners actually vote, they told HuffPost.
“It is a total nonissue in this state,” said Seth Lipschutz, the supervising attorney at the Vermont Prisoners’ Rights Office.
Being able to vote is one of the few threads connecting people in prison to the larger community, said Joseph Jackson, who was incarcerated in Maine for nearly two decades on a manslaughter conviction. Although he was incarcerated, Jackson said he still was interested in having a say in decisions that would improve the lives of his family members outside of prison.
“It was really reassuring that there was one link I still had,” said Jackson, who now is a prison reform organizer and helps inmates register and request ballots.
“It was really reassuring that there was one link I still had.”
There are two important factors that may affect Mainers and Vermonters’ tolerance for letting people vote from prison. Both states are overwhelmingly white and have some of the lowest incarceration rates in the country.
“Let’s just make sure we understand the Maine prison population, and the demographics of those that make up that prison population, doesn’t look like the majority of states,” Jackson said. He added that having a white prison population made it more palatable for lawmakers to allow prisoners to vote.
Both states have long histories of allowing people with felony convictions to vote. Neither state constitution bans felons from voting. The Maine Constitution neither grants nor denies people with felonies the right to vote, but lawmakers have never passed a statute restricting that right, said Maine Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap (D). There is a state law in Vermont that explicitly says incarcerated people can vote.
The practice has existed for so long in Vermont that residents and state officials had become accustomed to it as the norm, said Alec Ewald, a political science professor at the University of Vermont. “Crime and punishment” is not a particularly hot-button partisan issue in the state, Ewald added.
But the practice hasn’t gone unchallenged. In 2000, voters in Massachusetts approved a constitutional referendum to strip people of the right to vote in prison. In 2013, Maine lawmakers unsuccessfully tried to amend the state’s constitution to prohibit people convicted of the most serious crimes from voting. In the 1980s, there was a push to outlaw felon voting in Vermont. Jim Douglas, then the Republican secretary of state, helped stop the push by arguing that the Vermont Constitution clearly allowed it, according to The Associated Press.
“It’s written into our constitution. It’s really, part of our fundamental core values that people have the right to vote and that democracy works best when everybody has access to it,” said Cary Brown, the executive director of the Vermont Commission on Women. “It’s really more a matter of why would we take that away from people without a compelling reason.”