Former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke joined some of his fellow Democratic presidential candidates on Wednesday by signaling a willingness to “rethink” voting rights for prisoners.
O’Rourke, taking questions from the press while at the She the People forum in Texas, began his response on the issue by pointing to low voter participation rates in his state and broader rollbacks of voting rights Democrats have railed against around the country.
He noted that the prison population was “disproportionately comprised of people of color” and said while he was willing to consider expanding voting rights to non-violent offenders behind bars, he was opposed to extending the right to violent offenders in prison.
“I would think especially for non-violent offenders that we rethink removing the right to vote and allow everyone, or as many as possible, to participate in our democracy,” O’Rourke said. “For violent criminals, it’s much harder for me to reach that conclusion.”
Elaborating on his point, O’Rourke said violent offenders deserved to feel a consequence in “civic life,” in contrast to people behind bars for marijuana, which he has said he wants to legalize.
O’Rourke’s comments stopped short of his competitor Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders, whose state, along with Maine, allows prisoners to vote while serving their sentences.
Sanders said earlier this week at a CNN town hall he supported expanding the right to vote to all prisoners during their sentences, including non-violent and violent offenders.
Former Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro also told reporters at the She the People event that he was open to allowing non-violent offenders being able to vote while incarcerated, but also differentiated for violent felons.
“I agree with those who have said that incarceration should not necessarily strip somebody of the right to vote, that there’s a history in this country, especially in the south, of African Americans being disenfranchised because they were overincarcerated and that we need to change that,” Castro said. “Where I would draw the line is with violent felons. If somebody has committed a particularly heinous crime, then I believe that’s in a different category.”
California Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris said in a separate CNN town hall that she thought it was a conversation worth having, but did not weigh down definitively. She said the following day that she felt “there has to be serious consequence for the most extreme types of crimes,” but would think about it and talk to experts before deciding.
South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg unequivocally said felons should not be allowed to vote while serving their sentences.
“No,” he said during his CNN town hall Monday. “I do believe that when you are, when you have served your sentence, then part of being restored to society is that you are part of the political life of this nation again and one of the things that needs to be restored is your right to vote.”
He went on to say losing the right to vote is part of the punishment when someone is convicted of a crime.
“You lose your freedom and I think during that freedom, it does not make sense to have an exception for it the right to vote,” Buttigieg said.
CNN’s Jasmine Wright, Kyung Lah and Veronica Rocha contributed to this report.