A vote here sign at a polling place in Woodbury in November 2020. Photo by Max Nesterak/Minnesota Reformer.
With a chorus of assenting “ayes,” Minnesota legislators took their first step on Wednesday to restoring voting rights for anyone convicted of a felony offense and still on probation or parole.
“Restore people, restore communities. That’s what this is about,” said chief author of the bill Rep. Cedrick Frazier, DFL-New Hope.
The voting rights restoration bill is one of a suite of measures Democrats are pushing on election issues early in the legislative session, newly empowered by full control of the Legislature. Even as Republican states around the country have sought to make it more difficult to vote by shortening early voting periods and eliminating ballot drop boxes, Minnesota Democrats this year are already pushing automatic registration to make voting easier.
If enacted, the voting rights restoration bill would allow 66,000 more Minnesotans to vote. Current Minnesota law allows formerly incarcerated people to vote after finishing every part of their sentence, including probation, parole or any form of supervised release. Minnesota has one of the lowest incarceration rates in the country but some of the longest probationary periods of any state.
Legislators heard from former state representative Ray Dehn, who was formerly incarcerated, as well as voting rights and criminal justice reform advocates, faith leaders, probation officials and Minnesota Secretary of State Steve Simon. Testifiers were unanimously in favor of the bill and said the current policy is unfair, as people on probation or parole pay taxes.
“Nearly all of us have broken the law,” said Dehn, who authored similar voter restoration bills when he was a legislator. “We just didn’t get caught. That’s an important thing when we consider what this means.”
Advocates also said preventing people on parole or probation from voting disproportionately affects people of color, and pointed to studies that show people are less likely to reoffend if they feel invested in the community, including engaging in civic activities like voting.
“I’ve seen hundreds of boys and men stripped of their dignity in prison. They are often victims of trauma in an unforgiving world,” said Vicki Lambert, an Episcopal deacon from Red Wing. “They still felt unworthy and disenfranchised because they were not allowed to operate as full citizens once their time of incarceration was served.”
Restoring the right to vote to those convicted of a felony offense has won support around the country, including in Republican states. Rep. Nathan Coulter, DFL-Bloomington, joked that the policy has already been adopted by “progressive bastions” like Utah. Two states and the District of Columbia allow incarcerated people to retain their voting rights while in prison, while 21 states restore voting rights automatically upon release.
Rep. Duane Quam, R-Byron, questioned why probationary sentences are so long and suggested automatic restoration of voting rights upon release would not fix the root issue. Frazier offered to work on criminal justice reform with him, and the two representatives were seen chatting after the hearing adjourned.
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