The question was stark: Would you support enfranchising incarcerated people like the Boston Marathon bomber or convicted rapists?
The answer Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont gave was starker: Yes.
“I think the right to vote is inherent to our democracy,” Mr. Sanders said during a town hall-style event on CNN this past week. “Yes, even for terrible people.”
It was a response that seemed designed to appeal to criminal justice advocates, to say nothing of people of color, who are disproportionately incarcerated.
It also immediately touched off the latest policy debate of the Democratic primary: Among the candidates asked about the issue recently were Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Senator Kamala Harris of California and Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., all of whom signaled, with varying levels of intensity, that they did not agree with Mr. Sanders.
Unlike tuition-free college and “Medicare for all,” the right to vote for incarcerated people has yet to become a true wedge issue in the nascent 2020 race. What it has become is another opportunity for candidates to distinguish themselves in an increasingly crowded yet ideologically similar primary field — and perhaps satisfy some Democrats who are hungry for bold ideas.
Many Democrats support re-establishing voting rights for people after they leave prison. But most candidates are treading carefully around voting rights for the incarcerated. Former Representative Beto O’Rourke of Texas and former Mayor Julián Castro of San Antonio suggested this week that they would be open to allowing nonviolent offenders to vote while in prison.
Mr. Sanders has noted that his position could open him up to attack ads. The right-wing outlet Breitbart seized on his stance, calling it “insane” and asserting it would mean enfranchising convicted murderers like Dylann S. Roof, who killed nine black parishioners in a South Carolina church in 2015. Fox News also picked up on his remarks.
And by Friday, both President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence, seeing an opening, had attacked Mr. Sanders over his comments.
“Let the Boston bomber vote — he should be voting, right?” Mr. Trump said in a speech to members of the National Rifle Association. “I don’t think so. Let terrorists that are in prison vote, I don’t think so. Can you believe it? But this is where some of these people are coming from.”
But Mr. Sanders appears willing to take the risk: On Wednesday, he doubled down on his position. “Every American citizen must be able to vote,” he tweeted. “Period.” And on Friday, his campaign manager responded to the president and vice president, saying, “If Trump and Pence truly believed in freedom, they would work to make it easier for people to participate in the political process, not harder.”
Mr. Sanders’s remarks struck a nerve because he went beyond the normal parameters of the debate, civil rights advocates and experts on felony disenfranchisement said. By backing voting rights for not only formerly incarcerated people, but also for those who are still in the system, Mr. Sanders may have advanced reform efforts that have been building for decades and have recently gained national attention because of a high-profile dispute in Florida.
“This is the last major voting bloc that is missing from our democracy,” said Marc Mauer, the executive director of the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit advocacy organization, noting that roughly half of European nations allow prisoners to vote.
Voting rights for prisoners is “the next significant phase of this movement for disenfranchisement reform,” Mr. Mauer added. “And this is the highest-profile stage where we’ve seen this issue get any attention.”
Some advocates said that while the issue was worth exploring, a discussion that is centered on voting rights for violent offenders, rather than voting rights for incarcerated people more generally, misses the point.
“It should be a broader conversation,” said Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, a progressive civil rights advocacy group. “It should be a conversation about who gets a say in this country and what we have done to prevent people from having a say in all sorts of ways.”
Felony disenfranchisement laws have a disproportionate impact on black Americans, who are at least four times more likely to lose their voting rights because of them than the rest of the adult population, according to the Sentencing Project. Mr. Sanders struggled to win over black voters in 2016, and his campaign is working to do better this time around.
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a progressive Democrat from New York, sought to reframe the debate over the issue.
“Instead of asking, ‘Should the Boston Bomber have the right to vote?,’” she wrote on Twitter, “Try, ‘Should a nonviolent person stopped w/ a dime bag LOSE the right to vote?’”
That question, she wrote, applies to “WAY more people.”
Critics, meanwhile, said Mr. Sanders may have crossed a line.
“There’s a difference between felons who are in prison for nonviolent offenses and those who are in for capital offenses,” said Jim Kessler, executive vice president for policy at Third Way, a center-left think tank. Mr. Sanders’s remarks, he added, “seemed like a bit of a stumble.”
While the exact number of convicted felons in the country is hard to pin down, a 2016 report estimated that 6.1 million Americans had been barred from voting because of felony disenfranchisement laws. Christopher Uggen, a professor of sociology and law at the University of Minnesota who was one of the authors of the report, estimated that about a quarter of those people were incarcerated.
Americans generally support the right to vote for people who have completed their prison sentences, but that support dips significantly for people who are incarcerated, Mr. Uggen said. By speaking out on behalf of those people, he added, Mr. Sanders had elected to “run into the heart of the defense.”
“It’s certainly a principled position, and one many advocates have taken,” he said. “The rationale for disenfranchising prisoners is not much stronger than for disenfranchising anybody else.”
Because it is up to states — not the federal government — to determine who can vote, the rules currently in place amount to a complicated, confusing and, in some cases, starkly unequal patchwork of policy.
In 48 states, felons can regain their voting rights only after they are released from prison. Exactly when depends on where a person is incarcerated. Some states automatically restore a person’s voting rights after the person is released from prison; others do so after a person is no longer on parole or probation; and in a handful of states, a person convicted of a felony can be permanently barred from the ballot box depending on the nature of the crime that was committed.
Nowhere has the issue garnered more recent attention than in Florida, where voters approved a measure in November that restored voting rights to more than 1.4 million people who had lost them because of their criminal records. After the amendment took effect in January, questions arose about several issues, including whether people would be required to pay restitution in full for their sentences to be deemed “complete.”
This week the Florida House approved a Republican-backed measure that answers that question flatly with a “yes.” The Senate is currently considering its version of the bill. Critics say it would unfairly punish those who are unable to pay and undermine the amendment’s central objective.
In the meantime, roughly 130 other bills dealing with felon voting rights are winding their way through 30 state legislatures, staff members of the bipartisan National Conference of State Legislatures said.
And in what advocates said was a sign of how far the issue has progressed, at least four states have introduced bills this year that would allow incarcerated people to vote.
“The broader trend line has brought us to where we are today,” Ronald Newman, the national political director of the American Civil Liberties Union, said. “The conversation, in many ways, is just starting.”