70+ Civil Rights Groups Ask Presidential Candidates To Support Voting Rights For Incarcerated

70+ Civil Rights Groups Ask Presidential Candidates To Support Voting Rights For Incarcerated

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Supporters for a bill that would automatically restore voting rights to convicted felons upon their release from prison hold up signs supporting the bill during a news conference Thursday, Feb. 9, 2006, in front of the State House in Montgomery, Ala. Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, who is sponsoring the bill, said the current system has created long delays in restoring voting rights to inmates who have already “paid their debt to society.” (AP Photo/Rob Carr)

Over the last few years, activists have been fighting to get the voting rights restored for people convicted of felonies and who have served their time. But 2020 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has gone further and says that even those in prison should be able to vote.

The Vermont Senator has said he believes U.S. citizens should never lose their right to vote, even if they are doing time in prison.

“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 during a recent campaign rally.

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And in an  op-ed for USA Today, he explained: “At a time when voting suppression is taking place all across the country, we must make it clear that casting a ballot for American citizens is not a privilege. It is a right.”

Sanders noted that poor people of color are disenfranchisement disproportionately by imprisonment and that by taking away the right to vote of such prisoners is rooted in the “legacy of slavery and continuing racist attitudes post-Jim Crow.”

He wrote: “Indeed, our present-day crisis of mass incarceration has become a tool of voter suppression,” Sanders wrote. “Today, over 4.5 million Americans… have lost their right to vote because they have served time in jail or prison for a felony conviction.”

He continued: “The point here is simple,” wrote Sanders. “At a time when voting suppression is taking place all across the country, we must make it clear that casting a ballot for American citizens is not a privilege. It is a right. If you’re an American citizen who is 18 years or older you must be able to vote, whether you’re in jail or not.”

The idea to let prisoners vote may shock many in the U.S., but there are a number of other countries that allow prisoners to vote. In the U.S., only Maine and Sanders’ home state of Vermont allow voting while incarcerated, NPR reported.

Sanders’ idea hasn’t gotten the backing of other Democrats so far. South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg said prisoners should not be able to vote and California Rep. Eric Swalwell said prisoners who have done violent crimes should never be allowed to vote again — in prison or released.

Trump and other Republicans pounced on Sanders’ plan. “Violent convicted felons, murderers and terrorists should never be given the right to vote in prison. Not now, not ever,” Vice President Pence said during a National Rifle Association convention.

While the Democrats haven’t jumped onboard Sanders proposal, more than 70 civil rights groups are pushing for allow incarcerated U.S. citizens to vote. Among the groups is the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

“One thing that felt urgent to us was to make sure that we didn’t leave anybody behind,” said Ronald Newman, national political director for the ACLU.

Others in the coalition of more than 70 rights groups pushing for prisoners’ voting rights include the the Drug Policy Alliance, Color of Change, Abolitionist Law Center, American Homeless Society, Charles Hamilton Houston Institute for Race and Justice, Chicago Votes Action Fund, Citizen Action of New York, Color Of Change, Emancipation Initiative, Greenpeace USA, Harvard Law School National Lawyers Guild, Harvard Prison Divestment Campaign, National LGBTQ Task Force Action Fund, North Carolina Green Party, and the Racial Justice Action Center, among others, Common Dreams Organization reported.

In a joint letter to the 2020 presidential candidates, the groups wrote: “Ensuring that ​all Americans can vote is not just a vital affirmation of our national character, but an important policy to enhance public safety and reduce recidivism. We thus ask each of you to publicly commit to ending felony disenfranchisement and to call for the restoration of voting rights for all citizens, regardless of their criminal history.”

The letter pointed out: “The right to vote is a fundamental component of American citizenship. Yet millions of Americans have been stripped of this right and made to feel like second-class citizens because of laws that exclude people from voting due to a criminal conviction. An ​estimated 6.1 million American citizens​ with felony convictions were barred from voting in the 2016 presidential election alone, a race that was decided by just ​79,316 votes​. In short, felony disenfranchisement is not just anti-democratic and bad for public safety, it is an unpopular practice that sprang from the most shameful era of American history, a vestige of our past wildly out of step with international norms…Throughout Europe, people in prison retain their right to vote while incarcerated.”