AOC’s chief of staff on prisoners voting: Why shouldn’t the people most affected by unjust laws have a say in those laws?

If there’s a bad idea floating around Congress, rest assured that it’s been endorsed by someone on Team Ocasio-Cortez.

“Seeing Bernie et al prat-fall into some dorm room bullsh*t session about prisoners voting has made my day,” says Twitter pal CuffyMeh. Elements of the Green New Deal also had an odor of dorm-room scat around them but at least that proposal sought to meet an urgent demand on the left for policies to address a problem. By contrast, letting felons vote from behind bars seems to have wandered into the national presidential conversation like a lost tourist. You should’ve just given it directions and sent it on its way, Bernie.

Now here’s AOC’s right-hand man ushering it in and seating it at the table.

Weird but true: The Bill of Rights never squarely guarantees the right to vote the way the Second Amendment guarantees a right to bear arms. Other parts of the Constitution guarantee that the right to vote, once granted, can’t be taken away for certain specific reasons (race, most notably, per the Fifteenth Amendment). But in practice Chakrabarti’s right: The Supreme Court ruled long ago that Article I, Section 2, which requires that members of the House be “chosen every second year by the people of the several states,” guarantees “the right of qualified voters within a state to cast their ballots and have them counted at Congressional elections.” The Court says it’s a fundamental right whether or not the Constitution explicitly says so. And if you’re a Ninth Amendment fan, it’s not a long leap to believe that voting is covered there.

But I digress. The uncharitable view of Chakrabarti’s point about “unjust laws” is that the merry band of radicals in AOC’s office, not content to question the legitimacy of national borders, now would have us believe that all U.S. prisoners are to some extent political prisoners, even good ol’ Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. The more charitable view is that he’s talking about only some laws and some prisoners. Which, per his later tweets, seems to be what he meant:

You can imagine a system in which some felons get to vote while others don’t. In fact, you don’t have to imagine it. As Chakrabarti’s second tweet notes, some countries already do that via “selective restriction” of prisoner voting rights. One easy way to draw lines would be to let nonviolent felons retain the franchise and to deprive violent felons, on the theory that some offenses against the community are so grievous that they disqualify the offender from civic participation. A more nuanced approach would be to grant voting rights to anyone imprisoned for violating laws whose justness is under debate. Marijuana laws, as Chakrabarti notes, are an obvious example. A poll published five days ago claimed that 65 percent of Americans now support legalizing weed; if someone’s being held under a law which there’s reason to believe most of the public would rather do away with, arguably it’s only fair to give them a say in whether those laws are retained.

But how would we decide which laws are sufficiently “under debate” to justify granting voting rights to prisoners convicted under them? And more to the point, why the hell is Bernie Sanders taking an absolutist position on this instead of proposing a more defensible “selective restriction” scheme that would exclude the Boston Marathon bomber? I can’t tell from Chakrabarti’s tweets whether he’s with Sanders or with “selective restriction” but since maximalism is the DSA’s default mode, I’m guessing it’s the former.

Not every progressive feels the same way, though. Here’s Ro Khanna, another prominent left-wing member of the Democratic House caucus and a frequent ally of AOC’s on policy, coming out for letting some — but not all — felons vote. The fact that even Khanna’s skittish about this is the surest evidence yet that it’s electoral poison.

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