U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, a candidate for president, recently placed the issue of felon voting rights front and center. He stated that citizens should be able to vote even while incarcerated in jails and prisons. The right to vote is inherent to democracy, he said, and it should be guaranteed “even for terrible people” like rapists or the Boston marathon bomber.
I confess that I was shocked when I read about this proposal. In Minnesota, we have always thought that when you are convicted of a felony you lose your civil rights, including the right to vote, until you are discharged from probation or parole.
Minnesota Statute 609.165 says that “When a person has been deprived of civil rights by reason of conviction of a crime and is thereafter discharged, such discharge shall restore the person to all civil rights and to full citizenship, with full right to vote and hold office, the same as if such conviction had not taken place.”
So I did some research on my computer, and found out that what I thought was a universal truth is not true in much of the world. Vermont and Maine allow current inmates to vote. And in Europe, 18 countries grant incarcerated citizens the vote regardless of the offense. It is unheard of in Europe to permanently revoke the right to vote of those convicted of crimes after they have served their sentences.
In fact there are treaties (the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Copenhagen Document of the Organization for Security) that require universal suffrage for all adult citizens, with no exception for people convicted of crimes.
The U.S. is a party to these treaties. And yet in this country, there are an estimated 6.1 million persons with criminal convictions who remain disenfranchised, half of whom have served their sentences. The U.S., by the way, has the highest incarceration rate and the largest number of prisoners in the world, and the recidivism rate is close to 68 percent.
Both Germany and Norway have recidivism rates that are a lot lower than the U.S., which they think is due in part to encouraging prisoners to vote. Canada and Israel give all prisoners voting rights.
Udi Ofer of the American Civil Liberties Union said: “People should not lose their right to vote while in prison, regardless of the crime they were convicted of. Voting is a fundamental right and the cornerstone of our democracy, and should never be taken away as a form of punishment.”
As might be expected, the Trump administration disagreed with Sen. Sanders.
“I got news for you, Bernie," Vice President Mike Pence said. “Not on our watch. Violent convicted felons, murderers and terrorists should never be given the right to vote in prison.”
Last November, Florida voters approved a groundbreaking ballot measure to restore voting rights for some 1.5 million ex-felons. Previously, Florida was one of 12 states where felons lose their voting rights forever unless pardoned by the governor. Florida voters corrected that.
But now the Florida House (voting 67-42 along party lines) has endorsed a bill to take away the vote from tens of thousands of those ex-felons until they have fully paid all fines and fees that were imposed.
As one ex-con put it: “If you have money, you can vote. If you don’t have money, you can’t.” Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis has announced that he will sign the bill.
My initial shock at Sen. Sanders’ proposal turned out to be mistaken. It seems to me now that the idea of prisoners voting is a conversation worth having. What do you think?
James H. Manahan is a Harvard Law School graduate and was named one of Minnesota’s Top Ten Attorneys. He now handles family law, wills and probate in the Lake County area, and does mediation everywhere. He writes a regular column on legal issues for the News-Chronicle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or jamesmanahan.com.