Iowa is considering opening up voting to convicted felons who have completed their jail terms. But at a stop in Muscatine, Iowa on Saturday, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders took the policy one step further, demanding that felons be allowed to vote while serving their time in prison.
The Des Moines Register reports that the Vermont independent, who is running as the most progressive candidate for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, suggested that prisoners should be allowed to vote from behind bars — a step further than Iowa seems willing to go.
"I think that is absolutely the direction we should go," Sanders told the audience at Muscatine's West Middle School.
The Register reports that Sanders' home state of Vermont, and neighboring state, Maine, allow convicted felons to vote while they serve their prison sentences — the only two states in the country who recognize that right. Approximately 14 other states have done away with the idea that those who have committed serious and often violent crimes should be permanently barred from casting a ballot.
"In my state, what we do is separate. You’re paying a price, you committed a crime, you’re in jail. That's bad," Sanders told his audience. "But you’re still living in American society and you have a right to vote. I believe in that, yes, I do.”
In Iowa, the state may restore voting rights to convicted felons who have served their sentence on a case-by-case basis, but they've only begun to explore the possibility of restoring voting rights to felons across the board. A bill designed to do just that — expand voting rights to the formerly incarcerated — is now on hold in the Iowa legislature for a year after it was voted down.
Democrats have been pushing for felon voting rights for some time, and have had recent success in states like Florida, where voting rights were restored to the state's convicted felon community just after the 2018 elections (that extension, though, is now in doubt after the Florida House passed a bill requiring felons to pay back all court fees and fines before gaining full access to their voting rights).
Republicans have fired back, insisting that while felons who have served their time have paid their debts to society, their obvious disregard for the law should keep them from participating in the democratic process for the long term.
Sanders may not be championing prisoners' rights out of the goodness of his heart. Over the weekend, it became clear that Sanders has been trying to distance himself from the rest of the pack of Democratic contenders, often with far more extreme progressive policy positions than are shared even by the most progressive of his competitors.
On Saturday, Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) joined former Obama administration official Julian Castro, Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH) and former Rep. John Delaney (D-MD) at a "presidential forum" in Storm Lake, Iowa, according to the Des Moines Register, but Sanders declined to participate, preferring to give his own speech at his own rally.
Warren and others were asked the same question as Sanders — whether they would support extending voting rights to felons — but even Warren, who is racing to be the most far left of the remaining candidates, demurred from suggesting that felons should be allowed to vote in prison.