Minnesota’s largest voter-eligibility change in half century nears passage

Published 5:57 pm Tuesday, February 21, 2023

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By Brian Bakst

The Minnesota Legislature was on the cusp Tuesday of the largest voting-rights expansion in the state in half a century through a bill that would permit felons to vote again upon leaving jail or prison.

It follows many years of legislative consideration and a recent state Supreme Court court setback. Last week, justices upheld a law withholding the ability of felons to vote until after they finish all parts of their sentence — prison, parole and probation.

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DFL lawmakers had simultaneously been moving bills that would change the underlying 1963 law that the court kept in place.

“If a person is not incarcerated and if they are living in our communities, they should have the right to vote,” said bill sponsor, Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis.

“Remember, the individuals living in our communities, there’s already been a decision made by the courts and others where they should be. They are safe. They are paying taxes. They are raising families.”

Basically, once a person leaves custody they’d have their voting rights automatically restored. The bill passed the House on a bipartisan vote earlier this month and the Senate is the last stop. Debate there began Tuesday morning and was set to continue into the evening.

Gov. Tim Walz has said he will sign the bill.

Experts framed the action as the biggest expansion of voting since the 1971 ratification of the 26th Amendment, which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. That action made millions nationwide newly eligible to vote.

The number of felons restricted from voting because they’re “on paper” — that is, supervised release or probation — is in the neighborhood of 50,000 to 55,000, according to the ACLU of Minnesota. That group was one behind the recent litigation.

Some have been hemmed in by probationary periods that can go on for years or decades, although recent sentencing guidelines changes will limit probation to five years for all but the most-serious crimes.

The voting rights of those thousands would blink on for elections after July 1.

Senators arrived for their session to dozens of purple-shirted advocates chanting in favor of restoring voting rights.

“We wrote, we spoke, it’s time to restore the vote,” they said in unison. “Ten years, we organized hope.”

Inside the chamber, Champion spoke of voting as a way to reintegrate offenders back into society. Allowing them to vote, he said, will help reduce the chance those people feel ostracized and fall back into lives of crime.

Republicans tried to narrow the bill so certain crimes would disqualify people from immediate restoration. They tried amendments to rule out people convicted of murders or rape of minors.

“People that commit the crime of murder or manslaughter, they have permanently taken away their victims’ right to vote,” said Sen. Andrew Mathews, R-Milaca. “Permanently.”

Sen. Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove, said it’s unfair to victims of heinous acts and bad for society to treat all crimes the same. He said it marks another “appeasing of the criminal population in this state.”

“There is a degree of sentence that should be recognized in this policy that some people should not have the right to vote and affect public policy by voting for people in office,” he said.

Champion said it’s important to set a “bright line” around when to allow voting and that it’s still up to judges about how long people should be imprisoned.

“We are not doing anything to undermine the decisions being made by the courts. Nothing. Nothing,” he said. “You can hear whether someone got six months or nine months or 10 years or 15 years in prison. That has nothing to do with today’s bill.”

After the bill is signed, prisons and local corrections officials will be instructed to give notice to felons being released that their voting rights have been restored. It will direct them to voter registration options. The Secretary of State’s office will also do some awareness work and training for election administrators.

Advocates for the bill acknowledge they have a lot of work ahead of them to get those affected to exercise the new right.

They have to make past felons aware of the change and that voting after years of exclusion won’t get them punished. They have to register those new voters. And candidates have to give people a reason to vote.

Brian Fullman is with the Barbershop and Black Congregation Cooperative, which was among the groups that worked to build support for the bill. Fullman said there will no doubt be cynicism and that it’s up to organizers like him to talk to the affected people about why voting matters.

“This is about human lives. This is about how we value people. This is about who’s being prioritized,” Fullman said. “It’s never been a partisan approach. We absolutely in our organizing have not been concerned about who people actually vote for, but to be able to have the power and the access to use their voices.”