During Monday night’s CNN town hall, South Bend, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg got applause for saying inmates should not be allowed to vote. One black student in the audience was clearly appalled.
Kenya Hunter, a journalism graduate student at Emerson College, was in attendance during the back-to-back CNN town halls in Manchester, New Hampshire. Earlier in the evening, Hunter asked Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) about how he planned to address the yawning racial wealth gap, specifically if he supported reparations for slavery (Sanders said he supports a bill sponsored by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) which would conduct a study for what reparations would look like). Hunter tweeted that she felt Sanders’ answer was not enough.
However, Hunter went viral once again Monday night during Buttigieg’s town hall, when moderator Anderson Cooper asked the candidate whether or not he agreed with Sanders’ position that felons — including those whom were still incarcerated — should be allowed to vote. Buttigieg flatly responded that currently incarcerated inmates should not be allowed to vote, prompting the mostly white audience to clap and cheer. Hunter’s expression of shock and dismay made it into the shot at the 0:38 mark of CNN’s tweet of the exchange. MiddleEastEye correspondent Ali Harb’s tweet of Hunter’s reaction got nearly 20,000 likes.
— CNN Politics (@CNNPolitics) April 23, 2019
— Ali Harb (@Harbpeace) April 23, 2019
The question of whether or not formerly incarcerated felons should be allowed to vote most recently appeared on the November 2018 ballot in Florida, where it overwhelmingly passed, despite Republicans like Governor Ron DeSantis and Senator Rick Scott (R-Florida) narrowly winning elections while opposing that same ballot question. However, Sanders’ 2020 campaign is now pushing the discussion toward allowing current inmates to vote, even while incarcerated, saying that a fundamental right of citizenship is the right to vote.
Legal precedent for disenfranchising felons dates back to the Ratliff v. Beale case in Mississippi Supreme Court in 1896, in which African Americans recently freed from slavery were described as having a “previous condition of servitude and dependence,” and were referred to as “docile people, but careless, landless, and migratory.” Chief Justice Tim Cooper, while ruling on a poll tax not related to the case, admitted that Mississippi deliberately discriminated against African-Americans’ perceived characteristics “and the offenses to which its weaker members were prone.”
Felon disenfranchisement remains one of the last relics of the Jim Crow era to remain in place in many states. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, there are currently 12 states that do not allow former felons to vote, even after completing their sentences. However, currently incarcerated felons are not allowed to vote in 48 of 50 states (Maine and Vermont are the lone exceptions).
Carl Gibson is a politics contributor for Grit Post. His work has previously been published in The Guardian, The Washington Post, The Houston Chronicle, Al-Jazeera America, and NPR, among others. Follow him on Twitter @crgibs or send him an email at carl at gritpost dot com.