The American Civil Liberties Union is pushing 2020 presidential candidates to commit to cutting the federal prison population in half and to allow incarcerated people to vote, part of a $30 million push to shape elections and advance civil libertarian ideas over the next two years.
The ACLU has used its rapidly expanding membership and budget during the Trump era to get increasingly involved in electoral politics, spending heavily on referendums on civil liberties issues and occasionally wading into Senate, gubernatorial and district attorney races.
Its plan for the 2020 election, which it will unveil at a press conference on Sunday afternoon in New Hampshire, involves marshaling its thousands of members in the early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina to pressure candidates on a host of potentially politically thorny questions about civil liberties at town halls and candidate forums.
“If we can get a big number of candidates to commit in a clear and unequivocal way to certain civil rights and civil liberties positions, that would be a win,” said Ronald Newman, the group’s interim national political director. (The previous political director, Faiz Shakir, is now Bernie Sanders’ campaign manger.)
The group wants the 2020 candidates to commit to a platform that includes ending “unjust laws that strip citizens of their fundamental right to vote due to criminal convictions” and to allow the incarcerated to vote; working to cut the federal prison population in half; creating a path to citizenship for immigrants without legal status while ending the use of immigration detainers and reducing the use of immigration detention by 75 percent; and lifting the Hyde Amendment, which bars the use of federal funds for abortions except in cases of incest, rape or to protect the life of the mother.
Some of those positions are already widely held among the large field of Democrats running for president: A pathway to citizenship has been part of Democratic proposals on immigration since at least the beginning of this decade, and the 2016 Democratic National Committee platform included a proposal to overturn the Hyde Amendment.
But other proposals ― especially a pledge to reduce the federal prison population by half and to allow the incarcerated to vote ― are likely to meet more resistance. Only two states ― Maine and Vermont ― currently allow people in prison to cast ballots. And Democratic candidates in 2018 who adopted similar positions on reducing the prison population on the state level found themselves the subject of withering attack ads from Republicans.
“We don’t want the default positions that are in the party platform. We’re trying to advance civil liberties here.”
Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, for instance, refused to commit to allowing the incarcerated to vote while responding to a question at the Heartland Forum in Storm Lake, Iowa. (HuffPost was a co-sponsor of the forum.)
“Once someone pays their debt to society, they’re out there expected to pay taxes, expected to abide by the law, they’re expected to support themselves and their families,” she said. “I think that means they’ve got a right to vote.”
“While they’re incarcerated, I think that’s something we can have more conversation about,” she concluded.
Newman acknowledged some of the group’s priorities went further than Democrats have traditionally gone in the past, but said none were politically deadly.
“We don’t want the default positions that are in the party platform. We’re trying to advance civil liberties here,” he said. “We feel confident the people are with us on most of these issues.”
The group’s work has already begun to show results in the early states, where Warren, California Sen. Kamala Harris, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker and even Republican former Massachusetts Gov. Bill Weld have faced questions from locals identifying themselves with the ACLU. (The group is providing sample questions for voters to ask.)
Most of the $30 million the group has earmarked for the 2020 elections will be dedicated to the presidential contest, but it has also spent on a Wisconsin Supreme Court race and is looking at spending on referendums on expanding voting rights in Missouri and abortion rights in Michigan, and on local state’s attorney races in Virginia. As a nonprofit, the group will not officially endorse a candidate in the presidential race.