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The Shameful Moralizing On Prisoner Voting Rights

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Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders was asked during a CNN Town Hall about voting rights for prisoners. The questioner tested Sanders by using people convicted of sexual assault and “terrorists” as totemic prisoners.

“[Do you] support enfranchising people like the Boston Marathon bomber, a convicted terrorist and murderer?” Sanders was asked. “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?”

Sanders, who represents one of only two states that preserves voting rights for people with felony convictions, argued, “The right to vote is inherent to our democracy, yes, even for terrible people. Because once you start chipping away and you say, well, that guy committed a terrible crime, not going to let him vote. Oh, that person did that, not going to let that person vote. You’re running down a slippery slope.”

His 2020 opponents, on the other hand, jumped at the opportunity to give the question the answer it demanded in a shameful display of moralizing.

Kamala Harris acknowledged there are six million people who have completed their sentences but are still denied the vote. Yet, she said, “Do I think people who commit murder, or people who are terrorists, should be deprived of their rights? Yeah, I do. I’m a prosecutor. I believe in terms of, there has to be serious consequences for the most extreme types of crimes.”

Beto O’Rourke told reporters, “I would think especially for nonviolent offenders that we rethink removing the right to vote and allow everyone, or as many as possible, to participate in our democracy. For violent criminals, it’s much harder for me to reach that conclusion.”

Pete Buttigieg said he did not think prisoners should have the right to vote, explaining that “enfranchisement upon release is important, but part of the punishment is […] you lose certain rights. You lose your freedom. And I don’t think during that time it makes sense to have that exception.”

Sanders was not wrong when he argued there is a slippery slope to disenfranchisement, but the exact question he was asked and the responses given by his opponents deserve further reflection.


For many, particularly the elite, voting is viewed as sacrosanct. Those who choose not to vote are stupid and evil betrayers of our nation’s forebears.

Meanwhile, so few Americans actually participate in elections, especially those not involving a president. The reverence for voting has not animated an apparent popular movement against the myriad structural barriers to voting faced by many people.

It is not uncommon for popular discourse to discuss voting as a privilege as the candidates are desperate to do. It is an “opportunity” in the words of Sanders’ questioner. To hear the candidates describe it, it is a virtuous act not meant for the wicked.

Through their responses, Democratic presidential candidates uphold the concept of “civil death,” which British colonizers brought with them.

Civil death animated the many felon disenfranchisement laws enacted by the states throughout the 1700s and 1800s.

The concept took on new importance after the demise of chattel slavery. White supremacists found they could use crime as a proxy for race.

If Black people could not be detained as private property, they could be lorded over as criminals who were property of the state. Grandfather laws, vagrancy laws, Black Codes, Jim Crow, and many others were put on the books specifically to be enforced against Black people, and in the process (along with violence, poll taxes, literacy tests, and more), strip them of their newly won representation in government.

Meanwhile, the representative power of criminalized people was transferred to the majority-white rural communities that host their cages through a practice called “prison gerrymandering.” In effect, the practice (which continues today) takes political power away from the criminalized and uses it to amplify that of whites.

Therefore, focusing on the legal and procedural elements of disenfranchisement, or moralizing about individual prisoners, ignores the narrow enforcement of these policies in service of white supremacy.


Prisons and the laws that fill them have evolved to accommodate other marginalized groups. They are currently a place for civil death against those use drugs, have mental illness, live in poverty, are disabled, or have an otherwise marginalized identity.

Social mores have changed, too, as is clear from the popular liberal position articulated by Sanders’ opponents, which mirrors the mainstream criminal justice reform narrative. That is, only those convicted of “nonviolent” crimes are eligible for recognition as human beings.

Directly impacted communities have strongly criticized this artificial violence dichotomy for years, understanding how little difference this focus would make on their material realities beyond arbitrarily dividing the prisoner class. It was, after all, an idea that emerged from law enforcement and was buoyed by philanthropists—not how impacted communities advocated for themselves.

Unfortunately, Americans are constantly told through news and culture that prisons are filled with ruthless monsters and predators just waiting to kill us all. The violence dichotomy makes sense to most people, but a person’s convictions tell us very little about the actual conduct that took place.

Criminal laws are broad and prosecutors have enormous discretion when deciding which ones to use as part of their strategy to achieve a conviction. Most often, this means charging high in order to coerce a defendant into taking a guilty plea to avoid more time in prison.

Over 90 percent of defendants take a plea. They are typically disadvantaged as they fight cases from jail, with families depending on them for income and with far fewer legal resources and power at their disposal than prosecutors.

On a more basic level, the violence dichotomy requires a bizarre level of faith in a system that is so blatantly corrupt, bigoted, violent, and unfair.

This is a system with clear uninterrupted roots in anti-Blackness, in colonization of indigenous people, in the subjugation of women and queer people, and in the disappearance of sick, mentally ill, and disabled people.

Black people make up 40 percent of the prison population in a country, where black people make up 13 percent of the population. Tens of millions of people have criminal records and therefore face gigantic barriers to a normal life.

So-called ‘forensic experts’ on the bleeding edge of crime science are routinely outed as frauds. Stories of exploitation, neglect, and profiteering are common. Wrongful convictions, overcharging, over-policing, and violations of due process and basic fairness have been documented thoroughly for decades.

Meanwhile, these are communities from which we demand everything and give nothing. We expect total transformation from them after placing them in a position where it is often difficult to survive.

By blocking access to education, clean water and nutritious food, housing, jobs, and health care, and then smothering these communities with police and surveillance, we nurture many of the “crimes” moralized against by society.

As such, denying enfranchisement to these same communities is especially insidious. It means we prevent them from intervening in the very conditions that are used to sentence them to civic death. It means that people who go to prison are trapped as a constituency unto no one. That results in the decimation of communities through each generation because they have no formal political power to do something about it.

Brian Nam-Sonenstein

Brian Nam-Sonenstein

Publishing Editor at Shadowproof and columnist at Prison Protest.