MINOT, N.D. -- Sen. Bernie Sanders, a socialist from Vermont who is running for the Democratic nomination for president, thinks felons should vote.
Even those still in prison.
"I think the right to vote is inherent to our democracy," Sanders said this week. "Yes, even for terrible people, even if they are in jail. They're paying their price to society but that should not take away from their inherent American right to participate in our democracy."
Sanders is wrong on this, as he is when it comes to most issues facing our country. But he’s not as wrong as he usually is.
People who have been convicted of a crime and paid their “price” or their debt to society should, absolutely, be allowed to vote. The problem is Sanders wants people who are “paying their price to society” to vote as well.
That means people who are still in prison.
That means people convicted of crimes so heinous - crimes like murder and rape and even terrorism - they will never be let out of prison.
It’s a bridge too far.
Some supporting the Sanders position on this might be tempted to argue that voting is a right, and that going to prison doesn’t mean you lose your rights.
Except it does. Unless these folks want to argue that it’s somehow unjust to deny prisoners, and even released felons, their Second Amendment right to keep and carry a gun.
We allow prisoners to exercise First Amendment rights, like religious worship. I think we’re all glad the Eight Amendment’s protections against cruel and unusual punishment apply to prisoners.
But per the Fifth Amendment, the due process of a criminal trial which convicts someone of a felony allows the government to remove from prisoners some rights.
Including the right to vote.
We could let prisoners vote, despite some practical headaches such as where a prisoner in a state penitentiary should get to claim residency, we just shouldn’t.
I’m fine with disenfranchising prisoners as a part of their punishment. I don’t see anything particularly unjust about that.
What is unjust, I believe, is denying felons the right to vote once they’re out of prison.
North Dakota handles this the right way. In our state felons are eligible to vote again immediately upon release from prison. They don’t even have to complete their parole.
That makes sense. If a prisoner is still paying their debt to society, they shouldn’t be able to vote, but if they’ve paid that debt and served their time then voting is their right.
More than that, it’s a message to prisoners that their past troubles are behind them and the responsibilities of citizenship are ahead.
Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, a North Dakota political blog, is a Forum Communications commentator. Listen to his Talk Podcast and follow him on Twitter at @RobPort.