Prisoners’ voting rights focus of heated debate

When presidential hopeful Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, endorsed voting rights for imprisoned citizens last week, he drew a furious response from the right and skepticism from fellow Democratic candidates.

But the issue is now a matter of public debate — including in Pennsylvania, where thousands of federal inmates and tens of thousands of state inmates live in an archipelago of prisons and correctional facilities.

“I think the right to vote is inherent to our democracy,” Sanders said during a televised town hall event. “Yes, even for terrible people.”

The stance stuck tough-on-crime politicians and media figures as absurd: Even mass murderers and convicted terrorists could vote under such a system, they argued. But to criminal justice reform advocates, it addresses a serious problem of mass incarceration across the country.

Voting-rights laws for those convicted of crimes vary widely from state to state. In Pennsylvania, those jailed for misdemeanors can vote from jail using an absentee ballot, according to the state American Civil Liberties Union branch. Those imprisoned for felonies cannot vote, but they regain the right to vote after release.

Even that is a step beyond many states — particularly in the South — where convicted felons remain unable to vote long after their release. In many cases, they are required to pay off outstanding fines or seek special permission to regain the right.

Organizations like the ACLU fight laws that disenfranchise released felons, calling them “a relic of Jim Crow” and a means to keep a disproportionately black and Hispanic population from affecting elections. In Pennsylvania, black prisoners are incarcerated at a rate nearly nine times higher than white ones based on their population share, according to the Sentencing Project.

Politicians have resisted reform efforts — most recently in Florida, where residents voted overwhelmingly to extend voting rights to felons after their release. GOP lawmakers have sought to walk back the vote, adding legal conditions that opponents say undermines the referendum result.

But in a few states, lawmakers have taken the opposite tack, opening the voting rolls even to those currently in prison. In Maine and Sanders’ home state of Vermont, felons never lose their voting rights, even behind prison walls, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Such a change doesn’t appear to be on the horizon for Pennsylvania, where politicians have addressed even basic questions like gerrymandering only in fits and starts. But it represents an important question, particularly in districts where thousands of prisoners boost voter numbers while remaining unable to vote themselves.

As Notebook readers might recall from January, Pennsylvania tallies imprisoned residents in their prison’s district when drawing electoral maps. That means a jailed felon from Scranton or Pittsburgh boosts voting numbers in, say, a Huntingdon congressional district — while remaining unable to affect elections there. The outcome, prison reformers argue, is a system in which disproportionately urban populations lend their numbers to rural districts.

Many other states have banned such counting methods; in Vermont, jailed felons vote by absentee ballot at their most recent outside address.

Democratic presidential hopefuls are a long way from carrying out voting reforms, and many have diverged from Sanders’ idea. Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif. — a former prosecutor — said she was open to a conversation but opposed voting rights for those who committed “the most extreme types of crimes.” Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Ind., said he opposes voting rights for those in prison.

Several other candidates said they were open to a conversation. But one 2020 hopeful made his feelings (and his surprise) clear: President Donald Trump.

“When Bernie Sanders made certain statements the other day, I said, ‘Well, that’s the end of his campaign,'” Trump said at a National Rifle Association conference. “Then, what happened is everybody agreed with him.”

Biden focuses

on Pa. in launch

As the presidential race accelerates, Pennsylvania is shaping up as a key battleground, both for the 2020 general election and for the ever-growing list of Democratic candidates.

Former Vice President Joe Biden formally joined the ranks of at least 20 Democratic hopefuls last week, and he has launched the campaign with early attention to his home state.

Biden is set to kick off the campaign tomorrow with a rally at a Pittsburgh Teamsters union hall, pushing a pro-labor message. Biden has simultaneously courted unions and major business figures; a Philadelphia fundraiser reportedly featured Comcast lobbyists and the head of a law firm that helps companies counter union organizing.

Biden also drew an early endorsement in the state, with Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., offering his support minutes after the former vice president joined the race.

Inheritance bill

set for Senate

A bill by Rep. Carl Metzgar, R-Somerset, to eliminate inheritance taxes for Pennsylvanians under 21 was just picked up by a Senate committee — for the third time, the Somerset Daily American notes.

Metzgar, who represents much of Bedford County, saw his House Bill 262 pass the lower chamber easily early this month. The bill would eliminate a 4.5 percent tax when an estate is passed from parent to child.

“There have been cases in Somerset County where a minor child has had to pay inheritance tax on property that was jointly owned, such as a joint savings account, when the parent passed away,” Metzgar said in a memo backing the bill.

While it passed easily, with 18 no votes and unanimous support among Republicans, the bill still faces the Senate. As the Daily American noted, the bill has made it that far at least twice in recent years.

Ryan Brown can be reached at rbrown@altoonamirror.com.