Bernie Sanders revisited: Candidate backs letting violent felons vote from prison

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., who is now the front-runner in the Democratic presidential primary, continues to stand by one of his more controversial proposals -- which would allow even violent felons to have the right to vote while incarcerated.

On his campaign website, amid a host of far-reaching policies that would extend more benefits and rights to felons and other convicted criminals under the banner of "criminal justice reform," he pledges to return the “right to vote” to prisoners.


“All voting-age Americans must have the right and meaningful access to vote, whether they are incarcerated or not,” his campaign says. “We will re-enfranchise the right to vote to the millions of Americans who have had their vote taken away by a felony conviction.”

It's part of a "Prisoner Bill of Rights" that includes access to free medical care, free educational and vocational training, a "living wage" and unlimited visits and phone calls.

Restoring voting rights to felons in jail is not a new position for the democratic socialist and he has never indicated he wants to allow exceptions for any particularly heinous crimes. This point was underscored in dramatic fashion at a CNN town hall last April when he was asked if his position would support “enfranchising people” like Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as well as those “convicted of sexual assault.”

He said it would.

“I think the right to vote is inherent to our democracy. Yes, even for terrible people ... When they get out of jail, I believe they certainly should have the right the vote, but I do believe that even if they are in jail, they’re paying their price to society, but that should not take away their inherent American right to participate in our democracy,” he said.

Sanders argues that the inmates are already being punished with prison time but taking away the right to vote is a "slippery slope." He's made the same argument on the campaign trail.

"In my state, what we do is separate. You’re paying a price, you committed a crime, you’re in jail. That's bad," Sanders said in Iowa last year. "But you’re still living in American society and you have a right to vote. I believe in that, yes, I do.”


While a majority of states give voting rights to felons who have completed their sentences, with laws varying for parole and probation, it is another matter altogether to allow those still in prison to vote. For starters, the idea would raise pressing concerns for cities and counties with large prison populations, which could form an influential voting bloc in local elections -- aside from the implications of their vote in federal elections.

It’s something that has been strongly criticized by Republicans, with the Trump campaign citing it as an example of the “extremity and radicalism” of 2020 Democrats.

“Giving imprisoned terrorists, sex offenders, and murderers the right to vote is an outrageous proposal that is deeply offensive to innocent victims across this country, some of whom lost their lives and are forever disenfranchised by the very killers that 2020 Democrats seek to empower," Trump campaign press secretary Kayleigh McEnany told Fox News.


The Sanders proposal is one of a number of extreme proposals now facing more scrutiny as the Vermont senator builds early momentum in the Democratic primary race. He has racked up wins in the New Hampshire primary and Nevada caucuses, and essentially tied with Pete Buttigieg in Iowa.

Last week, his campaign appeared to walk back his plan for a full moratorium on all deportations, with his campaign manager telling BuzzFeed News that there would be exceptions for “violent criminals” on a case-by-case basis.

Fox News' Paul Steinhauser contributed to this report.