Bernie Sanders is the only candidate running for president who has called for the right to vote for all citizens, without exception. This means that all other presidential candidates wanting to be the nominee of the Democratic Party in 2020 — a party that prides itself on being the party of diversity and inclusion — are not yet comfortable with the idea that all citizens in a representative democracy have a say in how they are governed. Even after everything we have seen throughout this country concerning our criminal justice system and the way voting rights are used to repress and discriminate against certain populations, Sanders still is the only candidate calling for universal suffrage. And this should tell us all we need to know.
The fundamental right to vote for all citizens should not be a controversial position to take in a country calling itself the world’s greatest democracy. In fact, there is nothing more democratic than the idea of one person one vote. This idea is meant to protect citizens from the overreach of powerful interests and governmental oppression. If we accept that those in power can pass laws and make rules that strip certain citizens of their rights, thereby making it impossible for those citizens to have a say in the laws being applied against them, then what we have is not democracy. It certainly isn’t equality for all people under law. It is selective citizenship, rights doled out by those in power to the ones they deem to be “deserving” enough. Back in April, at a CNN town hall, Bernie brought the issue of universal suffrage front and center when he said he believed all citizens, even prisoners, should have the right to vote. This struck many other candidates as too controversial a position to take, and led other candidates like Mayor Pete Buttigieg to disagree and say that he supported people having their voting rights restored after they had completed their sentence. The problem with this argument is that it treats voting as a privilege and not a right. It also assumes that criminal laws can never be unjust or wrongly applied or that ideas of what is “criminal” cannot change over time.
We must not treat voting rights as a small issue. It is the issue. Candidates can debate all day long about their specific plans and policies, but if at their core they don’t really believe in the fundamental nature of rule by and for the people, then this is all just theatre. When Bernie talks about a political revolution, about a movement, this is what he means: he means democracy. He means universal suffrage for all people, for union rights, for workers collectives, for the very notion that citizens should be in charge of their government. If Democrats cannot agree on this very basic moral principle about our system then we need to be demanding much more of them, because an issue like this shows a stark contrast in what candidates truly believe. The mission of the democratic process must not be something we are willing to accept half-measures or compromises on. We must make it clear that no candidate can call themselves a progressive if they are unwilling to actually fight for progress.
We must move forward and continue the work of those brave leaders throughout our history who advanced the cause of the franchise for all people. We must demand that all people have a voice in their government. This is what Bernie fights for every day. Democracy is the cause that drives the Bernie Sanders campaign, and that is why Bernie Sanders is the voting rights candidate.
Adam Kenworthy is an attorney and chairman of the American Constitution Society’s Iowa chapter.