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'Absolutely the Direction We Should Go': Sanders Becomes First 2020 Candidate to Support Felons Voting From Behind Bars

"You're still living in American society," the senator says, "and you have a right to vote. I believe in that."

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.)

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) spoke at a rally in Fairfield, Iowa on April 6, 2019. It was the final of three campaign events Sanders held in the state on Saturday. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Sen. Bernie Sanders on Saturday became the first 2020 presidential candidate to speak out in support of allowing Americans to vote from behind bars.

During a campaign stop in Iowa, the Independent senator from Vermont was asked about his position on imprisoned people participating in political elections.

"I think that is absolutely the direction we should go," Sanders said at a town hall in Muscatine, Iowa, according to the Des Moines Register, a local newspaper.

Several states disenfranchise citizens convicted of felonies—though some states, such as Florida, have been pressured to change their laws to allow people who have served their sentences to vote. Currently, only Maine and Vermont let felons retain their voting rights while incarcerated, which the senator noted on Saturday.

"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."

His position was celebrated by advocates for criminal justice reform, including Shaun King, a longtime supporter who spoke at the candidate's 2020 launch rally in Brooklyn:

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The senator's comments came after GOP lawmakers in the Iowa Senate this week effectively killed a state constitutional amendment proposed by Republican Gov. Kim Reynolds to restore ex-felons' right to vote.

Sanders, on Friday, called the development "a disappointing setback" but vowed to keep fighting to strengthen voting rights. At the time, he said that felons should "regain their constitutional rights after they have paid their debt to society."

Sanders is the fundraising frontrunner in a crowded field of political figures seeking the 2020 Democratic nomination for president—and, so far, the only one to say he supports enabling people to vote while they are in prison.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), another 2020 contender, was asked her position on the issue at a candidate forum—which Sanders did not attend—hosted by HuffPost and the Open Markets Institute last weekend.

"Once someone pays their debt to society, they're out there expected to pay taxes, expected to abide by the law, they're expected to support themselves and their families," Warren said. "I think that means they've got a right to vote."

But she stopped short of calling for imprisoned citizens to cast ballots in elections, adding, "While they're incarcerated, I think that's something we can have more conversation about."

Warren was among the 2020 presidential hopefuls who also traveled to key primary states this weekend to meet with voters. Warren went to Nevada. Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Indiana, both visited New Hampshire. And former Texas Congressman Beto O'Rourke, like Sanders, was in Iowa.

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