Vermont senator and 2020 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders said Monday during a town hall in New Hampshire that even ‘terrible people” like Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev should have the right to vote while they are in prison.
Sanders was asked about his stance on enfranchising people with felony records at a CNN town hall hosted by Saint Anselm College.
“Does this mean that you would support enfranchising people like the Boston Marathon bomber, a convicted terrorist and murderer?” Anne Carlstein, a Harvard student, asked the senator. “Do you think that those convicted of sexual assault should have the opportunity to vote for politicians who could have a direct impact on women’s rights?”
The 77-year-old Democrat began his response by saying his campaign is about “creating a vibrant democracy,” that he wants to see higher voter turnout particularly among “young people,” and by calling out efforts of voter suppression.
“If somebody commits a serious crime — sexual assault, murder — they’re going to be punished,” Sanders said. “They may be in jail for 10 years, 20 years, 50 years, their whole lives. That’s what happens when you commit a serious crime. But 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 to let him vote,’ or, ‘That person did that, not going to let that person vote.’ You’re running down a slippery slope. So I believe that people commit crimes, they pay the price. When they get out of jail, I believe they certainly should have the right to vote. But I do believe that even if they’re in jail, they’re paying their price to society, but that should not take away their inherent American right to participate in our democracy.”
CNN anchor and moderator Chris Cuomo followed up by saying it sounded like Sanders was “writing an opposition ad” against himself in saying that Tsarnaev should be able to vote while still serving a prison sentence — not “after he pays his debt to society.”
“You sure about that?” Cuomo said.
“Look this is what I believe,” Sanders said. “Do you believe in democracy? Do you believe that every single American, 18 years of age or older who is an American citizen has the right to vote? Once you start chipping away at that, believe me, that’s what our Republican governors all over this country are doing. They come up with all kinds of excuses why people of color, young people, poor people can’t vote. And I will do everything I can to resist that.
“This is a democracy, we’ve got to expand that democracy,” he added. “And I believe every single person does have the right to vote.”
Currently only two states — Sanders’s Vermont and its New England neighbor, Maine — allow inmates to vote in prison. According to the Sentencing Project, an estimated 6.1 million people were disenfranchised as of 2016 due to felony convictions, with individuals who have completed their sentences making up more than half of that population.
— CNN (@CNN) April 23, 2019
Another Democratic candidate, Indiana’s South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, was asked about Sanders’s comments during a following town hall at the college.
“What do you think? Should people convicted of sexual assault, the Boston Marathon bomber, should they be able to vote?” CNN’s Anderson Cooper asked, referencing the Vermont senator’s remarks.
“No, I don’t think so,” Buttigieg said. “I do believe that when you are out, when you have served your sentence, than part of being restored to society is that you are part of the political life of this nation again and one of the things that needs to be restored is your right to vote.”
The mayor went on to explain why he didn’t support enfranchising those still serving prison time.
“Part of the punishment when you are convicted of a crime and you are incarcerated is that you lose certain rights, you lose your freedom,” Buttigieg said. “And I think that during that period it does not make sense to have an exception for the right to vote.”
Mayor Buttigieg says he disagrees with Sen. Sanders on felons' right to vote: "Part of the punishment when you're convicted of a crime and you're incarcerated is you lose certain rights … I think during that period it does not make sense to have an exception" #ButtigiegTownHall pic.twitter.com/0ddBR97Wcv
— CNN (@CNN) April 23, 2019
Tsarnaev was convicted of all 30 charges brought against him for his role in the 2013 bombings, which killed three people and wounded more than 260, and sentenced to death. In the days after the bombings, Tsarnaev and his older brother, Tamerlan, killed MIT police officer Sean Collier and engaged in a firefight with law enforcement in Watertown. Boston police Sgt. Dennis Simmonds suffered a head injury during the gun battle that he died from in 2014. Tamerlan Tsarnaev died in the confrontation.
Tsarnaev is behind bars at the supermax prison in Florence, Colorado, and is appealing his conviction.