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Should inmates get to vote? Pressley and Sanders say yes. How others are weighing in

Representative Ayanna Pressley waded into a controversial debate over felon voting rights that bubbled up on the presidential campaign trail this week, criticizing “pundits” who have invoked the Boston Marathon bomber in arguing felons still behind bars don’t deserve the right to vote.Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press/File/Associated Press

Representative Ayanna Pressley waded into a controversial debate over felon voting rights that bubbled up on the presidential campaign trail this week, criticizing “pundits” who have invoked the Boston Marathon bomber in arguing felons still behind bars don’t deserve the right to vote.

It’s the latest turn in a debate that popped onto the national stage after Senator Bernie Sanders said even “terrible people” should retain the right to vote while still in prison. He gave the answer in reply to a question by a Harvard student who asked Sanders specifically about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was convicted in April 2015 on all charges stemming from the Marathon bombings and their aftermath.


The comments ignited a mini-media firestorm. Reporters asked other 2020 contenders where they stand on the issue. Republicans sent out press releases. Meghan McCain weighed in.

Pressley vented frustration at the tenor and framing of the discussion in a series of tweets Thursday.

“Don’t dare invoke one of the darkest days of terrorism in MY city to stoke fear and derail a meaningful conversation about fundamental rights & what justice looks like for the 1000s of black & brown folks who are stripped of their liberty & civic participation for minor offenses,” wrote Pressley, the first black congresswoman from Massachusetts, who has emerged as a high-profile voice in the party’s left wing. Pressley said during her primary campaign that she would work to advance the legislative agenda developed by Black Lives Matter, which includes “enfranchisement of formerly and presently incarcerated people.”

She also highlighted how recent the loss of voting rights for felons in prison happened in her home state. Massachusetts was one of three states where incarcerated felons could vote until 2000, when a ballot question amending the state constitution to revoke that right passed by a 2-to-1 margin.


As Pressley reminded the world on Twitter, the push for that ballot question started in 1997, when the Globe reported that inmates of MCI-Norfolk prison were planning to form a political action committee.

Pressley called the Massachusetts law barring prisoner voting “a fearful response. . . . They were calling for a more just system and humane treatment of those incarcerated. They were reaching for the ballot to fight modern day slavery. As a nation we are facing a mass incarceration crisis that destroys families and communities.”

Maine and Vermont, which Sanders represents, are the remaining two states where prisoners may vote.

The question posed to Sanders at that CNN-televised town hall has led other 2020 contenders to have to stake out a position on the issue. Here’s a rundown of which presidential hopefuls have said what:

Sanders, in his original response, said he thinks “the right to vote is inherent to our democracy. Yes, even for terrible people, because once you start chipping away and you say, ‘That guy committed a terrible crime, not going to let him vote. Well, that person did that, not going to let that person vote,’ you’re running down a slippery slope.” Felons still behind bars are “paying their price to society, but that should not take away their inherent American right to participate in our democracy,” he said.

He doubled down with a tweet on Wednesday: ‘‘More than 30 countries around the world today such as Canada, South Africa, and Finland allow prisoners to vote. This is not a radical idea.’’


Senator Kamala Harris of California, a former prosecutor, was asked the same question in her own town hall Monday night and said she thought “we should have that conversation,” on the issue of voting rights for those in prison. (She also spoke forcefully in favor of restoring voting rights to felons who have served their time.)

She later walked that back some. “Do I think that people who commit murder, people who are terrorists, should be deprived of their rights? Yeah, I do,” she told reporters at a campaign stop in New Hampshire the next day. “I’m a prosecutor, I believe that in terms of, there has to be serious consequence for the most extreme types of crimes.”

Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., was quick with the “I don’t think so,” when asked the same about prisoners voting during Monday’s town hall. “Part of the punishment when you’re convicted of a crime and you’re incarcerated is you lose certain rights.”

Senator Elizabeth Warren, asked by reporters Tuesday about Sanders’s comments, said that she is “talking to people about that and certainly having a conversation about it. But I’m not there yet.” She has previously spoken in favor of restoring voting rights to felons once they’re released from prison.

Beto O’Rourke: The former congressman from Texas said he supports giving ballot-box access to nonviolent felons while in prison. “For violent criminals, it’s much harder for me to reach that conclusion,” he told reporters on the trail. “I feel like, at that point, you have broken a bond and a compact with your fellow Americans. There has to be a consequence in civil life for that as well.”


Julian Castro, a Texas Democrat who served in the cabinet of former president Obama, also expressed support for giving nonviolent felons the ability to vote while incarcerated.

“There’s no question that stripping people of voting rights when they’re incarcerated has been weaponized over time, especially in the South, and especially for African Americans,” he said, according to the Washington Examiner. But he said he would make an exception for violent felons. “When you commit certain types of violent crime, I believe that you lose all of those things.”

Material from the Associated Press was used in this report. Victoria McGrane can be reached at victoria.mcgrane