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story.lead_photo.caption Shea Wilson

The debate over allowing felons to vote is heating up as Democratic presidential candidates respond to comments by Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, an advocate for felon voting rights. Sanders, who is among the Democratic presidential field, said during a recent town hall meeting that he thought felons — even those still imprisoned — should be granted the right to vote in elections. Felon status should “not take away their inherent American right to participate in our democracy,” he said.

His opponents responded, but none shared his view that the incarcerated should be casting ballots from their prison cells without restrictions.

California Sen. Kamala Harris, a Democratic presidential candidate and former prosecutor, said “we should have that conversation” about granting prisoners the right to vote, but a day later clarified, “There has to be serious consequences for the most extreme types of crimes.” Democratic candidates Beto O’Rourke and Julián Castro say they back letting nonviolent felons cast ballots behind bars, but draw the line at violent prisoners. Pete Buttigieg, mayor of South Bend, Ind., opposed the idea: “Part of the punishment when you’re convicted of a crime and you’re incarcerated is you lose certain rights.”

Sanders’s home state of Vermont and Maine currently are the only two states that allow incarcerated citizens to vote.

In Florida, legislation to restore voting rights to felons (except murderers and felony sex offenders) has passed the state House. The bill that would implement a constitutional amendment was approved by voters in November’s midterm elections. But states like Iowa, Hawaii and New Mexico, have seen such measures stalled.

I have no problem with felons having their voting rights restored. But they should not be allowed to vote until they have completed their sentences (including any period of probation or supervised release). In Arkansas, the right to vote is lost upon conviction of a felony, and automatically restored upon completion of sentence, including any term of probation or parole, according to the Arkansas Governor’s Office on Clemency and Corrections website.

Do murderers, rapists, child molesters and armed robbers deserve to cast ballots from prison? NO. They lost “their inherent American right to participate in our democracy,” as Sanders describes it, when they were convicted of horrible crimes. They owe society and their victims a debt. That debt is their prison sentence. Some will be paying that debt for the duration of their lives. They should not have voting rights restored while incarcerated.

In addition to voting, felons lose many other civil rights, such as the right to sit on a jury, own a gun, obtain various professional licenses, or work as a public school teacher or law enforcement official in many states. The Arkansas Governor’s Office on Clemency and Corrections website outlines restrictions and processes for restoring civil rights: http://ccresourcecenter.org/state-restoration-profiles/arkansas-restoration-of-rights-pardon-expungement-sealing/.

Sanders’ advocacy for felons has also led to discussions about restoring rights based on the severity of the crime.

Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said via Twitter: “Instead of asking, ‘Should the Boston Bomber have the right to vote?’ Try, ‘Should a nonviolent person stopped w/ a dime bag LOSE the right to vote?’ [Because] that question reflects WAY more people.”

I agree that there are fewer Boston bombers out there, but criminals receive prison sentences as punishment for their crimes. They lose civil rights as a result. That is part of the punishment process.

As noted previously, in Arkansas, the right to vote is automatically restored upon completion of sentence, including any term of probation or parole. The problem is that many criminals never complete that sentence. They reoffend and the prison door or probation/parole system becomes a revolving one. Perhaps that demonstration of poor judgment is something some politicians prefer at the polls, but I think society could benefit more by supporting felons in re-entry initiatives instead of the right to vote while locked up.

Shea Wilson is the former managing editor of the El Dorado News-Times. Email her at melsheawilson@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter.com @sheawilson7.

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