We've seen this play before. The Washington Post reports
As the words left his mouth, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) could see the shape of the attack ads that could be used against him.
A questioner at a CNN town hall Monday night asked the presidential candidate whether he believes that incarcerated felons — the Boston Marathon bomber, for instance, or sex offenders — should be allowed to vote while they are serving their sentences.
Sanders’s answer: an unapologetic “yes.”
“I think the right to vote is inherent to our democracy — yes, even for terrible people — because once you start chipping away … you’re running down a slippery slope,” Sanders said. “I do believe that even if they are in jail paying their price to society, that should not take away their inherent American right to participate in our democracy.”
In a presidential campaign in which the Democratic candidates broadly embrace systemic changes to criminal justice — and as many Republicans also support such policies — Sanders’s comments nonetheless stand out.
Support has been growing nationally for re-enfranchising felons after they are released, and several states have taken steps in that direction. But the notion of voting rights for those still in prison has already opened up Sanders and other Democratic candidates to attacks from Republicans painting them as soft on criminals.
GOP operatives did not wait long to launch such attacks.
“Bernie Sanders, the current front-runner for the Democratic nomination, just made it clear he wants convicted terrorists, sex offenders, and murderers to vote from prison,” the Republican National Committee said in an email to supporters shortly after Sanders’s statement that included a clip of the remarks.
“The Boston Marathon Bomber killed three people and injured 280 more,” the email said. “Bernie’s concern? That he gets his absentee ballot.”
There is no actual voting constituency committed to extending the franchise to individuals in prison. Presumably, those most supportive of extending this right.... obviously are incarcerated, thus unable to vote and unable to apply serious political pressure. While in the general population there is some, and in the black community and in the elite punditry overwhelming, support for criminal justice reform, it's very likely that most Americans remain opposed to allowing incarcerated persons the right to vote.
It's going to happen, though. It won't be next month, next year, or in the presidential term of Donald Trump, Mike Pence, or a Democrat, but it will come about.
Fifteen years ago, Gallup found "roughly 6 in 10 Americans remain opposed to same-sex marriage, with only about a third supporting the concept." However, approval (now approximately 62%) of same-sex marriage grew fairly rapidly in the public, the President of the USA in 2012 finally admitted he supported it, and the Supreme Court ruled (narrowly) in 2015 that states could not prohibit gay marriage.
Currently, preventing incarcerated felons from voting is the politically safe option. It comes at no cost to taxpayers, prompting many Americans to favor it as a means to make criminals suffer without causing themselves any guilt or discomfort.
It is an exercise in self-deception. Most inmates are alienated from orthodox, law-abiding society and are little interested in voting. Those who do want to cast a ballot are more likely than their peers to want to be a productive citizen and adjust to societal norms. Discouraging that is counter-productive to any rehabilitative goal.
The concept of encouraging individuals- prisoners, immigrants, maybe others- to become an American is alien to a lot of people, and generally to the Republican Party. It contributes to the substantial support- among many "moderate" Republicans and centrists- for guest-worker programs, wherein the immigrant is permitted to work at a low-wage job but is denied the rights of Americans.
Therefore, and because fear is what most Republican campaigns are mostly about, if Bernie Sanders is nominated for President a major GOP tactic will be to link him to child sex predators, the Boston Marathon bomber, and possibly serial killers. Sanders evidently understands this. (There will be an effort to link any other nominee to Sanders' support of extending voting rights to prisoners, with less effect.)
Neither Republican nor Democratic politicians will recognize the parallel to same-sex marriage. Even Pete Buttigieg, who touts his marriage to a man, lacks the courage to acknowledge this, which as an extraordinarily bright individual he almost surely recognizes. (Buttigieg will take a bold stand on an issue.... when pigs fly.) Politicians know what the right policy is, but figure they have enough time to "evolve" on the vote as they did on marriage.
But whatever the impact on the political fortunes of the junior senator from Vermont, it is coming, as well it should.