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Pete Buttigieg Is Struggling to Win Over Black Voters Despite 2020 Surge

Pete Buttigieg said Monday night during a CNN Town Hall that incarcerated felons should not be allowed to vote while serving out their sentences.

“I don’t think so,” said Buttigieg to applause. “I do believe that when you are out—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 and one of the things that needs to be restored is your right to vote. As you know some communities and states do it, some don’t. I think we’d be a better country if everybody did it.”

Buttigieg added that some Republicans are motivated to keep convicted felons from voting because they noticed that “they politically benefit from that, and that’s got some racial layers to it.” But he added, “Part of the punishment when you’re convicted of a crime and you’re incarcerated is that you lose certain rights. You lose your freedom. And I think that during that period, it does not make sense to have an exception for the right to vote.”

Black Americans make up 34 percent of the U.S. correctional population, according to the NAACP, and they're incarcerated at more than five times the rate of whites. According to a 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 17 million white Americans and four million black Americans reported using an illicit drug within the last month, and yet the imprisonment rate of black Americans for drug charges is nearly six times more than whites.  

Buttigieg has acknowledged the disparity. “I consider criminal justice reform to be a key issue,” he told Out Magazine. “The cost of incarceration — and I’m not just saying the fiscal cost, but the social cost of incarceration — is tremendous. It’s clearly worsening some of the patterns of racial inequality in our country, too. I think more Americans than we realize agree on this issue. We just need more politicians to catch up.”

Pete Buttigieg Democratic Presidential candidate Mayor Pete Buttigieg, of South Bend, Indiana, attends a campaign stop at Stonyfield Farms, in Londonderry, New Hampshire, on April 19. Recent polls are showing Buttigieg is gaining ground with Democrats in the presidential nominating states of Iowa and New Hampshire—but not among black voters. Scott Eisen/Getty Images

Buttigieg has raced ahead in Democratic polls this month, but still struggles to attract the black and Hispanic vote, crucial blocs for any presidential contender, especially a Democratic one. 

A Monmouth poll out Tuesday found that 14 percent of white Democrats currently plan to vote for Buttigieg in the 2020 primary, but only 2 percent of nonwhite voters do. About 28 percent of nonwhite voters said they would vote for Joe Biden and 27 percent said they would vote for Bernie Sanders.

After watching Buttigieg's kickoff speech in South Bend, former Barack Obama adviser David Axelrod wrote, "Crowd seems very large, very impressive but also very white—an obstacle he will have to overcome.” He followed with, “And by obstacle I mean ‘deficiency.’ He will need to build out his coalition in a very diverse party.”

Buttigieg acknowledged the problem. “I think we need to do better,” Buttigieg told CNN. “We’ve got our work cut out for us.” He said he was working on creating a more diverse campaign staff and focusing on issues like housing and criminal justice reform. He also said he would work on “digital organization and reaching out into different media venues.” During a recent trip to New York, he visited hip hop radio station Power 105.1 for an interview on “The Breakfast Club.” 

But his town hall comments struck leaders in the black community as off-base.

April Reign, the creator of the #OscarsSoWhite movement, responded to Buttigieg’s answer on incarcerated voting on Twitter. “On first blush, this may sound to some like a good answer. But how do you recognize white supremacy plays a role in the lack of re-enfranchisement of formerly incarcerated folks, but not that white supremacy plays a role in mass incarceration to put them there in the first place?” she wrote.

"When Buttigieg responded that prisoners should be denied the right to vote, I couldn't help but think of the queer and trans people, many of color, who were incarcerated so that he could have the career and the freedom that he has now," Raquel Willis‏, executive editor of Out Magazine wrote on Twitter.

Earlier in the evening, Bernie Sanders defended allowing convicted felons, even those currently serving time in prison, to vote. When asked during a recent CNN town wall if he would allow the convicted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, or rapists to vote, Sanders responded, “The right to vote is inherent to our democracy, yes, even for horrible people.” 

“People will always use the most egregious and heinous examples of violence to legitimize the entire social project of prisons,” Clint Smith, author of Counting Descent, wrote on Twitter. “Using the Boston Bomber to ask if people in prison should be allowed to vote only reifies the caricatures of a system that throws millions of people away.”

Republican Senator Lindsey Graham immediately latched on to that argument. “Just when you thought it couldn’t get worse. Bernie Sanders supports allowing rapists, murderers, and terrorists—like the Boston bomber and Dylan [sic] Roof, the individual who massacred 9 church-goers in Charleston, to vote from prison,” he wrote on Twitter.

Sanders responded to Graham that his home state of South Carolina “has a higher incarceration rate than any country on Earth. African Americans are 27 percent of the state population but 60 percent of the prison population,” he wrote on Twitter. “Our racist criminal justice system disenfranchises millions. This is quite simply voter suppression.”

Senator Kamala Harris said she was open to a conversation around the incarcerated vote but did not express her opinion.

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