Earlier this week, at a CNN Town Hall event, presidential candidate Bernie Sanders opined that criminals serving prison sentences should have the right to vote from prison. Chris Cuomo who moderated the discussion, pointed out to Sanders that he was stepping on a political land-mine. But Sanders was undeterred. He responded by re-asserting his complete commitment to the idea that every American citizen’s right to vote should never be taken away for any reason—including, presumably, terrorism and sexual assault, which were included in the original question.
Bernie is merely being a good progressive. Like his acolytes, many of whom banded together to “Occupy Wall Street” in 2011, Bernie Sanders consistently promotes the most direct form of democracy achievable. The Occupy movement became something of a parody of this progressive democratic tendency, priding itself in modeling odd forms of “consensus building” in the public spaces it turned into campgrounds.
For progressives, “consensus” is the only proper seat of sovereignty—much like how the “general will” was the seat of sovereignty for the French revolutionaries. Adhering to this Left-wing principle consistently means that criminals must be included in the political process. After all, the only right the government has to hold someone in jail, according to this view, arises from the supposedly pre-existing “consensus” of the community which included the criminal himself.
The core problem with ideologically-consistent Leftism is that, by resting sovereignty in consensus, it turns participation in building that consensus (i.e. voting) into an inalienable right. For America’s founders, “inalienable rights” were those qualities which human beings possessed in a state of nature. God, they insisted, made men to live and freely pursue happiness. Any government which became destructive of these ends had become a tyranny.
The United States government has never treated voting as an inalienable right. In 1870, when voting first became a right (with the passage of the 15th Amendment), it became a civil right. Civil rights, unlike inalienable rights, are granted by government, not by Nature's God. Thus, these rights are subject to restrictions, and can even be suspended or taken away through Constitutional means (consider the wartime suspension of habeas corpus, for example). Like most civil rights, voting is subject to many restrictions (age, mental incapacity, criminal status, etc.). Such reasonable restrictions obviously do not make the United States government tyrannical.
Unfortunately, the way the word “rights” gets used in political discourse is hopelessly equivocal. It is probably impossible to insist that the general public recognize a distinction between inalienable rights and civil rights. So, if Republicans want to capitalize on Bernie Sanders’ gaffe, they may want to avoid using the term “rights” altogether. Instead, they should phrase the issue this way:
“Do you agree with Bernie Sanders that a convicted terrorist should have the same voice as you do over the direction of our democracy?”
If the above question were polled, the results would be overwhelmingly negative. That means, when it comes to the actual underlying issue being debated, Bernie's views are unpopular. However, by allowing Bernie to smuggle in misused "rights" language (much like he does with a "right to healthcare") he is able to convince some people to support his position. Taking this weapon from Bernie's arsenal could leave him utterly defenseless.