A majority of Americans are against giving imprisoned felons the right to vote, according to a new poll — despite ongoing conversations among 2020 Democrats about expanding enfranchisement to include all Americans.
In a poll released by the Hill and Harris X Thursday, 69 percent of registered voters said people who are incarcerated for a felony should not vote. That went up to 89 percent for individuals serving time for terrorism-related crimes.
This could be an alarming note for Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has proposed expanding voting rights to imprisoned felons while campaigning for president, and other 2020 Democratic candidates who have not gone as far Sanders has but have also discussed expanding the franchise, at least to individuals incarcerated for nonviolent offenses.
One of the poll’s notable findings is that while Republicans were more likely to be against allowing imprisoned felons to vote than Democrats — 85 percent and 61 percent, respectively — a majority of both party members were still against the idea.
That could pose a problem for 2020 Democrats who are interested in discussing disenfranchisement — or could just reflect the relative nascence of the conversation. Though multiple politicians have been discussing voting rights for some time, Sanders brought the issue to the spotlight following his April 23 virtual town hall with CNN.
In the days since, both Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) said they were open to the idea of allowing all imprisoned felons to vote, while former Rep. Beto O’Rourke (D-TX) and former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro said they’d allow nonviolent felons vote.
But not everyone’s on board: South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg flat-out turned down the idea, saying that losing rights is part of the punishment. Republicans such as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) did not shy away from slamming Sanders, characterizing the idea as allowing “rapists, murderers, and terrorists to vote from prison.”
So far, only Maine and Vermont allow incarcerated people to vote. Sanders’s proposition could expand that to the entire nation.
Racial groups most affected by the criminal justice system are more likely to support felon enfranchisement
The poll also found a stark racial disparity in the results, mirroring the racial disparity among who’s most affected by the US criminal justice system.
White and Asian American voters were more likely to be against allowing incarcerated felons to vote, 74 percent and 82 percent respectively, while only 43 percent of black or African American voters were against the idea. Sixty-six percent of Hispanics thought felons should not be allowed to vote. Younger people were also more likely to agree with the idea of supporting felons’ rights to vote. While only 46 percent of Gen-Z-ers thought felons shouldn’t vote, an overwhelming 82 percent of baby boomers supported voter disenfranchisement for felons.
The Sentencing Project reported that African Americans are incarcerated at 5.1 times the rate of white people. While the racial composition of the general population is 62 percent white, 13 percent black, and 17 percent Hispanic, the overall state prisoner population is 35 percent white, 38 percent black, and 21 percent Hispanic, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2014. That disparity, in turn, means that black Americans are more likely to have lost their right to vote because of incarceration.
“When we look at the history of why our country has banned incarcerated people from voting, we must understand that the efforts to rob citizens of their voting rights was a legacy of slavery and continuing racist attitudes post-Jim Crow,” Sanders wrote in a USA Today op-ed.
Sanders went further than many other candidates interested in addressing the racial disparities in the criminal justice system, however, saying that even “terrible people” like the Boston Marathon bomber, who has been convicted on terrorism charges, should be allowed to vote.
That’s prompted plenty of criticism. Fellow 2020 candidate Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ) said the debate was “frustrating” because the priority should be reducing mass incarceration.
“If Bernie Sanders wants to get involved in a conversation about whether Dylann Roof [who killed nine people at a predominantly black church in South Carolina] and the marathon bomber should have the right to vote, my focus is liberating black and brown people and low-income people from prison,” he said in a Tuesday interview with PBS.
With overwhelming opposition to providing felons with voting rights, Sanders may have picked a hard battle to win. But the poll also shows there are real divides among Americans over whether incarcerated people should vote — and some of the communities most affected by the issue might be more receptive to his proposal than others.