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Democratic Presidential Field Divides Over Whether Inmates May Vote


Democrats running for president are coming up against questions about whether prison inmates should be allowed to vote; they're not all giving the same answer. NPR's Ayesha Rascoe reports the issue is also dividing criminal justice activists.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: It started with a question - should the Boston Marathon bomber, who's currently on death row, be allowed to vote? At a CNN town hall, Vermont Senator and presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders said yes.


BERNIE SANDERS: I think the right to vote is inherent to our democracy - yes, even for terrible people. Because once you start chipping away - you say, well, that guy committed a terrible crime, not going let him vote; or that person did that, not going to let that person vote - you're running down a slippery slope.

RASCOE: President Trump quickly slammed Sanders' stance as too extreme.


PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Let the Boston bomber vote. He should be voting, right? I don't think so. Let terrorists that are in prison vote - I don't think so.

RASCOE: But it also exposed divisions within the Democratic presidential field.


CORY BOOKER: I just think that that is a frustrating debate that we seem to now be having.

KAMALA HARRIS: Do I think that people who commit murder or people who are terrorists should be deprived of their rights? Yeah, I do.

PETE BUTTIGIEG: Part of the punishment when you are convicted of a crime and you're incarcerated is you lose certain rights; you lose your freedom. And I think during that period, it does not make sense to have an exception for the right to vote.

RASCOE: That was New Jersey Senator Cory Booker, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg and California Senator Kamala Harris. The issue also threatens to split advocacy groups of all political stripes who joined forces last year to support the passage of a criminal justice law. Pat Nolan of the American Conservative Union Foundation says letting people vote while in prison is out of touch with political reality.

PAT NOLAN: Senator Sanders' proposal just is so far beyond where the public is that it's been the subject of derision.

RASCOE: Nolan says he thinks the idea would turn the public off from restoring voting rights for people after they've served time, which is something his group supports.

NOLAN: What it would do is torpedo efforts to restore it once they've paid the price.

RASCOE: But other activists say this discussion is long overdue. Over 70 groups sent a letter to Democratic candidates for president asking them to support voting rights for the incarcerated. Ronald Newman is the ACLU's national political director. He argues that voting is a fundamental right that shouldn't be taken away because someone commits a crime, the same way people don't lose their citizenship when they break the law.

RONALD NEWMAN: Our contention here is that we don't believe people need to be worthy of their vote. We don't believe that people need to lead blameless lives in order to have their right to vote.

RASCOE: Erin Haney, policy director for the group #Cut50, which supports prisoners voting, says critics of the idea are using an old playbook, picking out the most extreme cases to ramp up fear.

ERIN HANEY: We shouldn't form the basis of our policies on outlier cases.

RASCOE: Campaigns focused on ensuring that people can vote once they're out of prison have had success in Florida and other states in recent years. But at this point, only two states allow prisoners to vote while incarcerated - one is Maine; the other is Vermont, the home of Senator Sanders.

Ayesha Rascoe, NPR News, the White House.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOSSK'S "THE REVERIE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ayesha Rascoe is a White House correspondent for NPR. She is currently covering her third presidential administration. Rascoe's White House coverage has included a number of high profile foreign trips, including President Trump's 2019 summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Hanoi, Vietnam, and President Obama's final NATO summit in Warsaw, Poland in 2016. As a part of the White House team, she's also a regular on the NPR Politics Podcast.