“If somebody commits a serious crime, sexual assault, murder, they’re going to be punished,” he 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.”
Sanders went on to suggested that any restriction on voting rights erodes American democracy.
“Because once you start chipping away and 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,” he continued. “So, I believe that people commit crimes, they pay the price. They get out of jail, I believe they certainly should have the right to vote. But I believe 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.”
Other Democratic candidates participating in the town hall disagreed with Sanders.
South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, said felons should have their voting rights restored only after they leave prison, not before.
Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California, sidestepped a question about restoring felons’ voting rights saying, “I think we should have that conversation.”
It's not the first time Sanders has addressed felons’ voting rights.
At a campaign stop in Iowa earlier this month, Sanders said he hoped other states would join his state, Vermont, in not taking away voting rights for felons under any circumstances.
"In my state, what we do is separate. You’re paying a price, you committed a crime, you’re in jail. That's bad," he said. "But you’re still living in American society and you have a right to vote. I believe in that, yes, I do.”
With the exception of two states in the United States -- Vermont and Maine -- when someone is convicted of a felony, their right to vote is either suspended or revoked.
How and if a person can regain the right to vote is governed by the laws of the state in which the person lives.
Here’s how voting rights for those convicted of a felony break down in other states:
- In 14 states – Hawaii, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Montana, New Hampshire, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Utah and the District of Columbia: Felons lose their voting rights only while they are in prison. Their voting rights are automatically restored upon their release.
- In 22 states – Alaska, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Texas, Washington and West Virginia: Felons lose their voting rights while they are in prison and for a period of time thereafter, for instance, while they are on parole and/or probation. After the sentence is served, voting rights are automatically restored.
- In 12 states – Alabama, Arizona, Delaware, Iowa, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nebraska, Nevada, Tennessee, Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming: Felons will lose their right to vote indefinitely and in most cases need a pardon from the state's governor to get voting rights reinstated.
Who has their voting rights reinstated and how varies greatly by state. For instance in Alabama, “No person convicted of a felony involving moral turpitude … shall be qualified to vote.” However, before 2017, which crimes involved moral turpitude were not defined.
In Mississippi, you can be denied the right to vote if you are convicted of bigamy. You are also disenfranchised are convicted of murder, rape, bribery, theft, arson, obtaining money or goods under false pretense, perjury, forgery or embezzlement. If you have not committed one of those offenses, your rights will be automatically restored.
In Delaware, if you are convicted of “disqualifying felonies” (murder, bribery, sexual offenses) you are permanently barred from voting.
Note: The U.S. Department of Justice has a web page listing links for each state's process of restoring the right to vote.