The Unconvincing Defense of Sanders on the Boston Marathon Bomber

Elections
Senator Bernie Sanders, I, Vt., in Washington, D.C., April 1, 2019 (Carlos Barria/ Reuters)

Democrats are rolling out the defenses for Bernie Sanders’ statement last night that he supports restoring the voting rights of everyone, even convicted rapists and individuals like the Boston Marathon bomber.

First, the question came from a Harvard University junior who expressed concern that “those convicted of sexual assault would have the opportunity to vote for politicians who could have a direct impact on women’s rights,” so let’s dispense with the talk that this is some “right-wing talking point” or “Republican framing of the issue” or anything like that. It’s an entirely fair question: If you believe in restoring the voting rights for those convicted of felonies, where do you draw the line, if you draw the line at all? And if you don’t draw the line at all, are you comfortable with your vote being diluted by the votes of the Boston Marathon bomber, the Unabomber, or turncoat spy Robert Hanssen? Isn’t it understandable that lots of women (and men) would be bothered by restoring the voting rights of Olympic Park and abortion clinic bomber Eric Rudolph? Isn’t it understandable that lots of African-Americans (and everyone else!) would be irked at the thought of restoring the vote of the Charleston church shooter?

It would be odd to assert that putting someone in solitary confinement is appropriate but not allowing that person to vote is somehow unjust.

Yes, a monster like the Boston Marathon bomber represents one of the most extreme cases. Hard cases make bad law. The current state-level efforts to restore voting rights to released felons — sometimes to nonviolent felons, sometimes all felons — generally do not include restoring the vote for those still behind bars or serving life sentences. This is because state-level advocates understand that the public is more amenable to restoring the vote to a former burglar or tax cheat or bad check writer than a mass murderer.

For what it’s worth, South Bend mayor and presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg saw nothing unjust about the current arrangement. “Part of the punishment when you are convicted of a crime and you’re incarcerated is you lose certain rights. You lose your freedom. And I think during that period, it does not make sense to have an exception the right to vote.”

Sanders — and Kamala Harris, who said “we should have that conversation” but apparently has nothing to add to that conversation — had the chance to offer a better answer. They chose to argue that everyone should have the right to vote, and that no crime is so heinous that the perpetrator forfeits his right to vote. They’re free to have that position, but they have to accept the political consequences of holding it. One of those consequences could well be the Trump campaign running ads in every major city, spotlighting the most notorious local murderer serving a life sentence, and accurately stating that Bernie Sanders wants to restore that felon’s voting rights.

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