As the words left his mouth, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) could see the shape of the attack ads that could be used against him.
A questioner at a CNN town hall Monday night asked the presidential candidate whether he believes that incarcerated felons — the Boston Marathon bomber, for instance, or sex offenders — should be allowed to vote while they are serving their sentences.
Sanders’s answer: an unapologetic “yes.”
“I think the right to vote is inherent to our democracy — yes, even for terrible people — because once you start chipping away … you’re running down a slippery slope,” Sanders said. “I do believe that even if they are in jail paying their price to society, that should not take away their inherent American right to participate in our democracy.”
In a presidential campaign in which the Democratic candidates broadly embrace systemic changes to criminal justice — and as many Republicans also support such policies — Sanders’s comments nonetheless stand out.
Support has been growing nationally for re-enfranchising felons after they are released, and several states have taken steps in that direction. But the notion of voting rights for those still in prison has already opened up Sanders and other Democratic candidates to attacks from Republicans painting them as soft on criminals.
GOP operatives did not wait long to launch such attacks.
“Bernie Sanders, the current front-runner for the Democratic nomination, just made it clear he wants convicted terrorists, sex offenders, and murderers to vote from prison,” the Republican National Committee said in an email to supporters shortly after Sanders’s statement that included a clip of the remarks.
“The Boston Marathon Bomber killed three people and injured 280 more,” the email said. “Bernie’s concern? That he gets his absentee ballot.”
Sanders’s comments, and the reaction to them, reflect Democratic candidates’ tricky path ahead. They’re striving to ignite support among a liberal, unusually energized Democratic primary electorate — while knowing that in a general election they’ll face a far more conservative voting population, prodded by a GOP eager to paint Democrats as extreme.
The two venues aren’t entirely separate, since polls suggest many Democratic primary voters care deeply about choosing a nominee who can win the general election. Sanders has been working to persuade Democrats he can defeat President Trump, but Monday’s remarks could give pause to some of the voters he would need to win over.
Sanders himself appeared to recognize that danger, when CNN host Chris Cuomo said the candidate’s comments might be grist for an attack ad. “Well, Chris, I think I have written many 30-second opposition ads throughout my life,” Sanders said. “This will be just another one.”
The town hall question reflected a national debate on criminal justice and voting rights. In November, Florida voted to become the latest state to allow felons who have served their time to vote, part of a growing support for re-enfranchisement. The measure, which excluded those convicted of murder or sexual offenses, needed 60 percent of the vote to pass and received 65 percent.
Still, many people — including presidential candidates — seem uncomfortable with the notion of allowing felons to vote before they have completed their sentences.
Those behind Florida’s initiative said they crafted it carefully to attract enough support.
“We spent years working with folks all over the state on our amendment language,” said Neil Volz, political director of the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition. “It was a reflection of what was supported by the people.”
Maine and Sanders’s home state of Vermont are the only two states that allow inmates to vote while they’re incarcerated.
Proponents of keeping felons away from the ballot box say the convicted forfeit their right to participate fully in American society — including elections — when they choose to break the law. Disenfranchisement laws affect nearly 6 million Americans, although states vary in whether and how they restore voting rights, according to the American Civil Liberties Union.
Most of the Democratic aspirants for the White House, while saying disenfranchisement laws need to change, have remained silent on whether people in prison should be allowed to cast ballots.
South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, who also appeared on a CNN town hall Monday night, said he believes states should re-enfranchise felons, but only after they’re released from prison.
“Part of the punishment when you are convicted of a crime and you’re incarcerated is you lose certain rights; you lose your freedom,” Buttigieg said. “And I think during that period, it does not make sense to have an exception for the right to vote.”
In her own CNN appearance, Sen. Kamala D. Harris (Calif.) said she felt strongly about re-enfranchising released felons, and was willing to “have a conversation” about people casting ballots from prison, a sentiment similar to that expressed by another Democratic candidate, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), at a March forum in Storm Lake, Iowa.
“Right now, I think the fight should be over felony re-enfranchisement,” Warren said. “While they’re still incarcerated, I think that’s a different question, and I think that’s something we can have more conversation about.”
One of the Democratic candidates, Sen. Cory Booker (N.J.), has made voting rights especially central to his campaign. He spent several days last week in Georgia talking about voting issues, including his support for ending partisan gerrymandering, implementing universal voter registration and allowing convicted felons to vote. But he has not said anything publicly about voting by felons still inside America’s prisons.
While Sanders’s position set him apart from the other presidential hopefuls, Republicans quickly seized on it to tar all the Democrats seeking the White House.
Ronna McDaniel, chair of the Republican National Committee, tweeted that “letting terrorists vote” was part of the candidates’ “dangerous agenda.”
“If you had any doubt about how radical the Democrat Party has become, their 2020 front-runner wants to let terrorists convicted of murdering American citizens vote from prison,” she wrote. “It’s beyond extreme.”
And Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) tweeted that Sanders “supports allowing rapists, murderers, and terrorists — like the Boston bomber and [Dylann] Roof, the individual who massacred 9 church-goers in Charleston, to vote from prison.”
Some on social media simply tweeted out a picture of Sanders next to Roof or Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
Sanders’s position, however, could resonate with some in the African American community. Incarcerated terrorists represent an extreme minority of felons, said Black Lives Matter activist Shaun King, a Sanders supporter.
King said in an interview that he supports voting rights for people in prison because it would counteract a racist approach dating to the Jim Crow era that still disproportionately affects minorities.
“People like to use the worst possible examples — ‘Oh, you want Dylann Roof to vote?’ ” King said. “It’s a bad-faith argument. Are we saying that all of those (incarcerated) people don’t deserve the right to vote because of your problems with Dylann Roof?”
He added, “These policies, the roots of these policies, is about stripping people of their political powers. Many states in the 1880s, the 1890s, were taking way the vote of people they were afraid of — namely, black people.”