Allowing Prisoners to Vote – Let’s Think This Through

So democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders wants to give all prisoners the right to vote. He said so during a recent campaign speech, much to the surprise of many. I was among them.

Sanders believes “the right to vote is inherent to our democracy” and even “terrible people” like the Boston Marathon bomber should be allowed to participate.  No other democratic candidate has gotten behind this idea, although several have said they support returning the right to vote to convicts after their release.

It is up to individual states to decide who can and cannot vote. In some states convicted felons are never allowed to vote again. Other states require the newly released ex-con to apply for reinstatement to the voting rolls.  Some make the applicant wait until after their probation and/or parole is complete. Currently, only two states allow felons to cast ballots from behind bars, Sanders home state of Vermont and the neighboring state of Maine.

Am I the only one who sees a potential risk in Sander’s idea?  Let’s think this through by looking at the federal prison system as a snapshot. Currently, more than 45% of those incarcerated, in excess of 76,000 inmates, are held on drug related crimes. If they were suddenly given the right to vote would they be casting a ballot for the betterment of the country or in their own criminal self-interest? Don’t you think it would be likely that they would vote for the candidate they perceived as being softest on drugs and, maybe, soft on crime in general? More than 18% of federal inmates, more than 31,000, were convicted on gun, explosive or arson charges. Wouldn’t it stand to reason they would vote for candidates who campaigned against more gun laws?  Is this really what we want?

How Would Such a System Work Anyway?

I think when someone is convicted of breaking the law of the land they cannot be trusted to vote for those who make the laws of the land.  And besides that, think about the logistics involved in allowing incarcerated persons to vote. How would it work to accommodate the more than two million people who now reside in federal, state, local, military and Indian Country lock-ups? (To be accurate, the majority of people held in local jails at any given time have not yet gone to trial so they might still be able to vote via absentee ballot.)  It would be inconceivable to haul voting machines in and out of all the nation’s jails and prisons. So, a monumental and costly process would have to be designed to get the right ballot to the right inmate at the right time.

Would convicts get to vote in state contests where they last held residency or in the state in which they are incarcerated? And how would they educate themselves on what the candidates stand for?  Will political parties be allowed to send lobbyists into prisons to stump for their candidates? And, finally, if the inmate has been convicted of crimes against the state or espionage against the nation should they still be allowed to participate in our most sacred civil exercise?

Those who support Sander’s idea are quick to remind that many other countries allow their prisoners to vote including Canada, South Africa and Kenya.  In Europe, prisoners in twenty-six countries have their voting rights protected by the European Convention on Human Rights.  In Ukraine, voter education programs are offered to inmates so they can learn about the candidate’s policy platforms.

Aubrey Menarndt, says America has it all wrong.  She is an international elections monitor who has traveled the globe to observe how elections are conducted in other countries. Menarndt says she once watched election officials in the Republic of Georgia build, “a makeshift bridge over a stream to reach the remote farm home of an elderly homebound voter.” That’s a touching story about the sanctity of every single vote, but I’m betting that elderly voter never murdered, raped or planted a bomb that killed innocent people.

Look, I’m not a person without empathy. I believe once a convict serves his or her time, and assimilates safely back into society, they should be granted the right to vote again. Absolutely.

The United States went on an incarceration binge the last few decades and the result is that More than six million Americans carry a current or former felony conviction on their record.   To keep them at arm’s length from the electoral process isn’t fair or productive.  They should be welcomed back into society and given every opportunity to better their life. They already carry the burden of their conviction and the discrimination in housing, employment and social status that goes along with that. They should not be ostracized forever, but rather greeted with restoration of the most important civic gift of all – the right to vote.  It benefits us all to help restore ex-cons to full taxpaying status.



  1. Diane Dimond on May 20, 2019 at 9:54 am

    Reader Every time I think Bernie Sanders has lost it he does something that confirms my thinking. Why is he answering a question that nobody is asking. With all of the issues facing this country this is what he focuses on? This is a time when a candidate should be trying to bring us together, not picking issues that create more divisiveness.

    In the unlikely event Sanders is the nominee, Trump is going to have a field day with Sanders’ honeymoon in the Soviet Union. Crazy Bernie is going to become Comrade Bernie.

    Joel Widman
    Rio Rancho, NM

  2. Diane Dimond on May 20, 2019 at 9:57 am

    Reader Mitchell Freedman writes:

    I write to you directly to express disappointment with your article about voting rights for felons serving time. You made an assumption that those in jail would vote in a manner that would promote anti-social politicians. There is no evidence for that anywhere I could find, and you offered none.

    I was disappointed you did not try to grapple with why it is that Vermont and Maine have continually allowed people in jail to vote and not wonder why there is nothing unusual about people elected in Vermont over two centuries where prisoners have been allowed to vote. Vermont until the last thirty years was a reliable conservative, cautious Republican oriented state and is now a more liberal one. It has a similar trajectory to other New England states. Also, not once in your article did you point out that 2.5% of the population is in prison, the highest percentage in the civilized world. While that should be the cause for outrage, particularly considered drug related charges that land people there (mostly poor, often minority such that it becomes a second Jim Crow, as writer Michelle Alexander has noted), the number 2.5% is pretty small. Again, there is no evidence these prisoners who vote are petitioning for Charles Manson to become president (well, when Manson was alive) and there is more reason to believe prisoners may want to appeal to their own better sides.

    An article I link to below shows that. Overall, I was initially opposed to prisoners voting, thinking why not? But now I have thought about it and have switched to a position of why can’t they vote? It may actually help our society, where we have private prisons which pay prisoners either nothing or 25 cents an hour to do work, akin to slavery. I am, again, disappointed that your article read as someone who did not give more than a few moments thought to the subject with no research whatsoever about why it is Canada and many nations in Europe also give prisoners a right to vote.

  3. Diane Dimond on May 20, 2019 at 11:00 am

    Reader Cupcake ♡@CupcakeSuz writes:

    Very big deal! It just opens the door for more corruption. Bernie lost my vote after that.

  4. Diane Dimond on May 20, 2019 at 11:58 am

    Reader Bill Voinovich writes:

    Yet ANOTHER reward for bad behavior….
    Keep this up, and eventually, you can eliminate prison altogether, because, one by one, you’re giving the turds all their rights back…….

    • Diane Dimond on May 20, 2019 at 11:59 am

      Reader Elizabeth A. Benedetto writes:

      One of the reasons we have mass incarceration is to suppress the vote. Started during the civil rights movement. The “progress” had to be stymied. War on drugs… war on crime?! No war on newer voters!

      • Diane Dimond on May 20, 2019 at 12:00 pm

        DD replies to Elizabeth A. Benedetto:

        Diane Dimond Elizabeth A. Benedetto – i’d like to see some imperical evidence on that, Elizabeth. Are you attributing the “war on new voters” to a particular political party? Since the Civil Rights Movement started – as the prison population rose – democrats were in charge for a large part of the time: JFK, Johnson, Carter, Clinton, Obama. Sprinkled in there were Regan, and two Bushes. I don’t count Trump only because the increased prison population took place well before his term. I really interested to know who you think was behind your “war on new voters.”

        • Diane Dimond on May 20, 2019 at 12:09 pm

          Elizabeth A. Benedetto replies:

          don’t forget Richard Nixon! He was very instrumental in the above- referenced “wars.”
          We have approximately 2.3 million people incarcerated in America… the vast majority are people of color. We have another approximately 67 million with criminal records in the United States. I am not sure what percentage of those have felony records, which would have precluded them from voting fir the past several decades… but you undoubtedly can see the big picture and point. It’s just a surface look, but on its face one can see voter suppression in action.

          • Diane Dimond on May 20, 2019 at 12:09 pm

            Diane Dimond relies to Elizabeth A. Benedetto:

            Yes. I forgot about Nixon. I have written extensively about the nation’s prison population, the racial disparities, the unfair over-sentencing. You are welcomed to read those past columns at my website. But still…I don’t see that the MOTIVE for the over -population of prisons is voter supression. As I recall, as a reporter covering the US Congress back in the day, and one who remembers back to the Rockefeller “get tough sentencing” trend — started out of fear that the crime/drug rate was getting out of control…If you have evidence that it stemmed from a racial place I’d like to hear that.

  5. Diane Dimond on May 20, 2019 at 12:11 pm

    Reader George Barwood writes:

    Yes, the right to vote is fundamental in a Democracy, and should not be infringed.

    • Diane Dimond on May 20, 2019 at 4:34 pm

      Reader Anthony Flacco replies:

      Anthony Flacco There is nothing in our Constitution that says the right to vote shall not be infringed. You are appropriating the language of the Fifth Amendment. We can lose both our rights to vote and our rights to own guns by displaying criminal behavior. The judgment of criminals is not the judgment that will ever be of use to the citizen voters.

  6. Diane Dimond on May 20, 2019 at 12:12 pm

    Reader Nancy Spieker Robel writes:

    No voting rights while incarcerated. After they do their time, reinstate. It is one of the few consequences remaining for breaking the law.

  7. Diane Dimond on May 20, 2019 at 12:13 pm

    Timothy Hurley writes:

    …It might encourage that journey back to society. Its never too soon to start and that’s the idea of rehabilitation, right? But as a central platform for a presidential campaign? Oh heavens, no.

  8. Diane Dimond on May 20, 2019 at 2:54 pm

    Reader mollie fermaglich 1st degree connection1st – (Satirist)

    I have an idea! Let’s get the Benghazi murderers and the animals who slaughtered Daniel Pearl and all the relatives of those who perpetrated 9/11, give them instant citizenship and let them vote too!

Leave a Comment