When Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., said that he supported allowing those behind bars to vote from prison, he drew outrage. But Bernie’s plan isn’t as bananas as his critics would make it out to be.
At the most basic, Sander's argument is simple: citizens have a right to vote. Being in prison doesn't change that.
To be clear, that is a slightly different conception of the rights afforded to those convicted that has traditionally been understood in the common law . Initially, incarceration was seen as losing rights of citizenship and conceived of as a, at least temporary, "civic death."
As Justice Earl Warren put it in the 1958 case Trop v. Dulles: “Citizenship is not a right that expires upon misbehavior." And why should it? After all, incarceration does not entail loss of other fundamental rights, such as freedom of religion.
In the United States, however, this understanding has done little to change our practices towards voting rights for inmates, despite significant changes elsewhere. In fact, the U.S. is an outlier compared to other democracies. Canada, Denmark, Germany, Israel, Spain, South Africa, and 15 other countries all allow felons to vote in prison with another 14 countries allowing some felons to do so.
Moreover, there's nothing in our constitution that would prevent us from giving rights to those behind bars, and plenty in our conception of an inclusive democracy seems to strongly support enfranchisement.
Indeed, the only part of the Constitution that explicitly deals with felony disenfranchisement is the 14th Amendment passed in the aftermath of the Civil War. In addition to granting African American men the right to vote, it also stipulated that states could continue to deny individuals suffrage for “participation in rebellion, or other crime.” But states don't have to do this.
Today, as established by Richardson v. Ramirez in 1974, states may still disenfranchise those in prison and need not re-enfranchise them upon release. Although some states automatically enfranchise individuals when they're released, many others do not, either mandating a set amount of years or even requiring a petition to the governor. Two states, Iowa and Kentucky, impose a lifetime voting ban for all convicted felons.
That practice, applied both during and after incarceration, strips citizens of their essential rights and acts as a permanent punishment, regardless of what a judge or jury decided was just.
Two states, however, have avoided these issues entirely. Both Vermont and Maine allow everyone, even those behind bars for murder, to cast their ballots. Just as the 35 countries around the world that allow at least some inmates to vote, Maine and Vermont have yet to see ill consequences from doing this.
What Sanders is proposing isn't radical, nor is it a new idea. It also need not be partisan. In fact, Mike Donohue, a spokesman for the Vermont Republican Party, perhaps offered an even better defense of the practice than Sanders did. In a 2018 interview with NBC he explained, "The last thing we want to do is start putting up insurmountable barriers to participation in civic life because someone may have been convicted of a crime." Adding, "People’s right to vote is sacred."