Democratic socialist Sen. Bernie Sanders told a town hall in Iowa on April 7 that convicted felons should be allowed to vote while in prison.
“I think that is absolutely the direction we should go,” the Vermont senator responded when asked if the imprisoned should be allowed to vote.
Only Vermont and Maine currently allow prisoners to vote from behind bars. Most states revoke voting rights from felons, including after they served their prison sentences. A number of states, including Iowa, are considering laws that would grant voting rights to felons who have served their time.
“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. “But you’re still living in American society and you have a right to vote. I believe in that, yes, I do.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), another presidential candidate, was asked about allowing felons to vote during a forum in Storm Lake, Iowa. Warren said those who’ve served their sentence should be able to vote, but she didn’t endorse a right to vote from behind bars.
“While they’re incarcerated, I think that’s something we can have more conversation about,” Warren said, according to the Des Moines Register.
Republican Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds promoted a state constitutional amendment this year, which would automatically grant the right to vote to felons when they complete their sentences. Currently, felons in Iowa must have permission from the governor if they want to cast a vote. The amendment failed this year after the state’s Senate killed the measure.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, felons in 14 states lose their rights only while incarcerated and have their rights restored automatically upon completing their sentence. Felons in 22 states lose their rights while behind bars and on probation or parole.
In 12 states, felons lose their voting rights indefinitely upon conviction. In some cases, the rights can be restored through a pardon from the governor or after a specific waiting period.
The general trend nationwide has been toward restoring voting rights to felons. Florida, New York, and Colorado passed measures granting some voting rights to felons who served their sentences.
Sanders is the leading candidate in a crowded field of Democrats who have officially announced their candidacy for the 2020 presidential election. Former Vice President Joe Biden is the only Democrat more popular among Americans, but he hasn’t yet officially announced that he is running.
Sanders is a self-described socialist. His socialist policies—like “Medicare for All” and free public college tuition—received little support from fellow Democrats six years ago, but have now become mainstream. Of the top five Democrats trailing Sanders in the polls, each supports Medicare for All.
Of the 20 million felons who have served their sentences, approximately 13.4 million are eligible to vote, which is roughly 10 percent of the 130 million Americans expected to vote in a presidential election, according to a Reuters report that cites 2010 data. Only one in five felons who are eligible to vote actually do so. Most tend to vote for Democrats.
Sanders has supported the idea of giving all felons the right to vote for at least three years.