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In special session, restore voting rights to ex-offenders in Minnesota

REUTERS/Rick Wilking

This summer marks the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Voting Rights Act. When Congress passed this landmark legislation in 1965 all members of Minnesota's delegation, which included both Democrats and Republicans, voted for it. That fact speaks strongly to Minnesota’s value of supporting a strong, engaged and fair electorate — a value that transcends party lines.

Jason Adkins

Minnesota leaders in both parties now have a chance to show that they can come together and uphold this ideal, by passing voting rights restoration during the upcoming special session of the Minnesota Legislature.

Promotes public safety and community engagement

This legislation would restore the vote to approximately 47,000 Minnesotans who live in our communities but still cannot vote because of a prior felony conviction. It has strong bipartisan authorship and support, and a diverse statewide coalition of more than 70 organizations, including public safety organizations, service providers, faith communities, and community engagement groups, among others.

The Restore the Vote coalition believes that once we decide as a community that it is in the public’s best interest for an ex-offender to be living and working in the community and rebuilding his or her life, there is no good reason why that person should not have a voice in our democracy. When people have the opportunity to vote, they feel as though they are a part of their communities, and have a true stake in society.

Charles Samuelson

As many ex-offenders can attest, the opportunity for positive civic engagement removes one more barrier to re-entering society. Research also shows that such opportunities may reduce recidivism and foster increased civic participation in children of felon offenders.

Change will create a much clearer rule

Public officials believe that this change will also conserve public resources. Current law is confusing, and this change will create a much clearer rule about who can vote, which would save valuable law enforcement resources and make it simpler for all Minnesotans to engage in our state’s democracy.

Those opposing this change believe that losing the right to vote is just one consequence of committing a felony. We agree that we must insist on accepting responsibility and paying the consequences for crimes, but we should not simply punish for punishment’s sake. We should also work to rehabilitate people and allow them to be a positive example for their children.

Our friends, neighbors and family members who commit crimes are expected to come out of incarceration and contribute to society, but continuing to have criminal justice policies that undermine that goal is counterproductive.

An opportunity to show political process works

The Restore the Vote coalition is grateful that Gov. Mark Dayton has made it one of his priorities for the special session. Unfortunately, it is caught up in the deal-making process because it was not allowed a hearing by House leadership during the regular session, even though it passed the Senate.

The reason it was held up is a mystery. Our coalition met with every legislator who would take a meeting; we provided them with detailed, fact-based information. Furthermore, we engaged thousands of Minnesota citizens to speak with their representatives on this issue.

We are deeply disappointed that, despite our success in doing everything a group of citizens can do to bring a policy issue to a vote by our elected leaders, a decision was apparently made behind closed doors to block it from having a hearing. If there are policy concerns about the legislation, then those should be discussed in the committee process, which is why it exists. As many of the largest newspapers of Minnesota editorialized, this bill is a positive change that deserves more public consideration.

We hope legislative leaders and the governor will use the special session as an opportunity to give this bipartisan legislation the public consideration it deserves. Either way, our coalition will continue to grow and to make the case why restoring the vote is a policy that serves the well-being not only of ex-offenders and their families, but all Minnesotans.

Jason Adkins is executive director of the Minnesota Catholic Conference. Charles Samuelson is executive director of the ACLU of Minnesota. 

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If you're interested in joining the discussion, add your voice to the Comment section below — or consider writing a letter or a longer-form Community Voices commentary. (For more information about Community Voices, email Susan Albright at salbright@minnpost.com.)

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Comments (8)

This is a very misleading op-ed

Felons who have been released from prison in Minnesota are already allowed to vote, once they have served the probation and parole part of their sentences. The bill at issue would eliminate that requirement, and allow felons who are still on probation or parole to vote. Yet this op-ed does not even mention the words "parole" or "probation" -- making it sound like this bill is needed to re-enfranchsie ANY felon who has been released from prison.

In my opinion, moreover, Minnesota law already goes too far. If you aren’t willing to follow the law yourself, then you can’t demand a role in making the law for everyone else, which is what you do when you vote. The right to vote can be restored to felons, but it should be done carefully, on a case-by-case basis after a person has shown that he or she has really turned over a new leaf, not automatically on the day someone walks out of prison -- and, in any event, certainly not when he or she is still serving the probation or parole part of the sentence!

Not at all

Restore the Vote has consistently been very out in the open that the right to vote in this bill begins with release from prison irrespective of probation and parole. That way everyone knows who is eligible: if you're in prison, you don't get an absentee ballot; otherwise you can vote.

Mr. Clegg -- who in a previous post revealed the organization in which he serves as the General Counsel, a conservative think tank in Falls Church, Virginia -- appears to prefer that felons can never vote again except as granted case-by-case by some unstated extra-judicial process. Clearly, his real purpose is to limit the electorate in the worst tradition of American disenfranchisement, a position admirably not followed by several Minnesota Republican co-sponsors. (Among many counterarguments, one only has to look at http://www.weareallcriminals.org/. People who break laws have been voting all along if they didn't get caught, an opportunity afforded some of us more than others. Tom Petters was not only voting for many years prior to his conviction but may have also been donating big sums to campaigns; how many others like him just have not been caught yet?)

The following illustration can help demonstrate the need for this new law. Person A and B committed the same crime and received the same sentence: two years in jail with only 30 days served, the remainder subject to 10 years of probation. On day 60, Person A violates his probation. He spends two years in jail and is released. In Year 3, Person A is now able to vote while Person B must wait an additional 7 years. With the proposed bill passed, Person B would be able to vote all 10 years (after the 30 days), while Person A loses his right to vote for 2 years for violating his probation. Which makes more sense?

Nor does it make sense to maintain confusion about when or how one becomes eligible -- unless the ulterior motivation is voter suppression.

Misleading

while Restore the Vote may have been clear on this point of restoring the right to vote during probation, the first letter writer is correct that the commentary isn't at all clear.

To the reader who is not reviewing proposed legislation or meeting with special interest groups it looks like felons loose the right to vote permanently now, and this would restore them that right after they have served their time.

The fact that it moves the restoration of voting rights from the end of probation to the end of time served is totally lost in this article.

Certainly the first scenario (eliminating a permanent loss of voting rights) is a more sympathetic cause, perhaps thats why the article is ambiguous in it's description than necessary.

Not misleading at all

There are two issues here:

While an ex-offender is serving probation or parole, they are being taxed like any other citizen and yet they are being denied the right to voice their opinions. This is classic taxation without representation and it's what this country fought a war to abolish.

The second is that voting harms no one. Ex-offenders are no more or less capable of holding opinions regarding government than anyone else. Denying them the right to vote is punitive, plain and simple.

Not only that

but restoring voting rights gives the person a connection to their community which is critical in their rehabilitation. If they feel they have a voice, many will work harder to try and function within the parameters of a lawful society.

Terms

Let’s be clear: parole and probation are all part of the sentence and until they expire, the penalty for the crime is not over.

On the other hand, if we are talking about taxation without representation, we should let legal immigrants vote – they pay taxes and do not commit crimes.

As for Persons A and B, most likely a 2 year sentence will still be followed by probation so described inconsistency will not occur.

Being Clear

The commenter lacks legal training and is misinforming us. Probation is the period of time and the conditions for an alternative sentence that does not involve state prison (though can include a brief stay in local jail as part of the conditions).

In my example, which is common (though the specific numbers are random) the tradeoff for the prosecutor is that instead of a two year sentence, I will keep that hanging over the defendant's head for ten years, and if there's no new crime in that period the defendant can avoid prison. Once the convicted person serves two years, there cannot be probation because the sentence has been served in full. This is true if the sentence is served in years 2-3 after the conviction, or years 7-8 (i.e. behaved well for six years and then lapsed). The opportunity to vote thus becomes part of the incentive of maintaining probation successfully.

It is clear

We are all saying the same thing: probation is a part of the sentence and, therefore, a part of the penalty for a crime so I am not misinforming anyone despite my lack of legal training.

And yes, the tradeoff between probation and prison is well known but still many prison sentences are followed up by probation. However, it is the 2 years vs. 10 years which made your example so glaring and yet those numbers are random and not necessarily reflect the reality of sentencing.