Politics & Policy

Bernie Sanders Is Wrong: Felons Shouldn’t Vote from Prison

A guard escorts inmates at San Quentin state prison in San Quentin, Calif., in 2012. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)
Giving criminals more of a say in elections is morally wrong — and a political disaster for Republicans to boot.

Democrats used to argue that once felons had served their time, they had paid their debts to society and should be able to vote. Now, top-tier presidential candidate Bernie Sanders wants felons to never lose their right to vote, not even while they’re in prison.

For both parties, this is not only a moral issue but also a political one. The push to enfranchise felons started after George W. Bush narrowly edged out Al Gore by 537 votes in the 2000 Florida presidential election. While felons weren’t legally able to vote in that election, thousands still cast their ballots. It was clear that felon votes could make a decisive difference, and Democrats took notice.

Florida’s 1.5 million felons constitute a substantial voting bloc. Even if felons would vote at rates of only 15 to 20 percent, they still represent 225,000 to 300,000 potential votes. In the 2018 Senate race, Republican Rick Scott received only 10,033 more votes than Democrat Bill Nelson. Republican Ron DeSantis beat Democrat Andrew Gillum in the governor’s race by 32,463 votes. Felons could easily erase Republicans’ razor-thin advantage in Florida.

In the last election, a ballot referendum did in fact enfranchise Florida felons who have left prison. Since that time, according to presidential adviser Jared Kushner, “We’ve had more ex-felons register as Republicans than Democrats.” But his comments are likely based more on wishful thinking than on actual data. Florida doesn’t provide a breakdown of registrations by criminal status.

University of Florida professor David Smith conducted a small survey of 61 Floridians who had identified themselves in the media as felons. Thirty-nine were registered: 25 as Democrats, ten without a party affiliation, and four as Republicans.

A Public Opinion Strategies survey interviewed 602 adults in Washington State in May 2005; 102 respondents were felons who had their voting rights restored, while 500 were non-felons. I examined this survey and accounted for other differences that predict how people vote — race, gender, education level, religious habits, employment, age, and county of residence. Felons were 37 percent more likely to be registered Democrats than were non-felons with the same characteristics. They were 36 percent more likely to have voted for John Kerry over George W. Bush. African-American and Asian felons in Washington State reported voting exclusively for Kerry.

One academic study estimated that Bill Clinton pulled 74 percent of the felon vote in 1992 and a whopping 85 percent in 1996. The study based these estimates on the race, gender, and income of felons. My analysis of the Washington State data — which, again, found that felons are more Democratic even after accounting for demographics — suggests that these estimates, as high as they are, are actually understated.

It looks as if almost all felons are Democrats. Felons are not just like everyone else — they are even more likely to vote Democratic than was previously believed. This guarantees that some Democratic supporters will continue in their efforts to get felons to the polls.

If Democrats fight for and achieve felon enfranchisement, they can count on having an even more loyal voting bloc. It isn’t just state election results that could change. Prisons are often located in rural, low-population areas. The Louisiana State Penitentiary has 6,300 prisoners and is located in West Feliciana Parish, a county with only 12,888 non-prisoner adults. With 33 percent of potential voters easily located in one place, local candidates are going to spend a lot of time campaigning at the prison.

Then there is the moral side of the issue. Why is it in the interests of women that rapists should have a say in deciding who will win elections? Sexual offenders aren’t going to support women’s safety and health issues or education the way that other citizens will.

Sanders and other Democrats would never argue that people should regain their right to own a gun after serving time for a felony, even a non-violent one. After all, we learn something about a person who commits a crime, especially serious ones such as rape and murder.

Democrats’ desire to let felons vote is understandable. But criminals shouldn’t cast deciding votes that overrule the policy preferences of law-abiding Americans.

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