As state after state moves to restore voting rights to people convicted of a felony, it grows increasingly obvious — morally, ethically and practically speaking — that Minnesota should, too.
In Minnesota, people who have finished their prison sentences and are on probation or supervised release are not allowed to vote. This means that more than 53,000 of our neighbors who live alongside us in our communities — living, working and raising families — are barred from exercising their rights. This affects people across our state, 70 percent of whom are from Greater Minnesota.
Parents can’t vote for their school boards or for levies to fund the schools their children attend. Small business people can’t vote for city council members who make the policies that affect their livelihoods. And veterans who served our country are silenced and prohibited from taking part in a civic duty and civil right for which many of them risked their lives.
Withholding the vote punishes us all
Some people want to keep withholding the vote to further punish people convicted of a felony, apparently believing that the time people serve behind bars is inadequate punishment. But they somehow miss the fact that people in Minnesota already are being punished with some of the longest probation terms in the nation, a problem that also cries out for reform.
Voting is a virtuous activity that should be encouraged, not discouraged. We spend a lot of time, effort and resources encouraging people to vote, and we in Minnesota are justly proud when we hear — as we consistently do — that Minnesota voters turn out in large numbers. We are proud because large voter turnout demonstrates our sense of community and our patriotism.
When we withhold the vote, it punishes us all.
Moreover, Minnesotans believe in the power of rehabilitation and redemption. We know that most people in prison will rejoin society, and, when they do, it benefits all of us when they succeed and become a part of our community.
We in Minnesota also believe that people deserve a second chance.
Yet we make it hard as a society for them to find that second chance. As hard as they try, people with felonies on their records struggle to find housing, to obtain good jobs – or any job – and to feel part of their communities.
Withholding the vote further isolates them, makes it harder to fit back into community life, and therefore makes it more likely they will reoffend. Research shows that restoring the vote reduces recidivism; withholding the right to vote does just the opposite.
As we’ve attended legislative hearings on the issue, we’ve heard over and over from people that not being able to vote is a source of pain, and that finally being able to vote again is a source of great pride.
Forty years without a voice
This denial of a basic civil right can last for decades – Minnesota has the nation’s fifth-highest probation rate. Legislators just heard from a woman who is on probation for 40 years for a drug-related conviction. She went to prison, then to college and is now counseling people with drug and alcohol problems. She desperately wants to vote, but won’t be allowed to do so until she is 71. She watches the news and reads voraciously to keep herself prepared for that day.
How does barring someone from voting for four decades help our society? All it does is withhold people’s gifts and perspectives from the civic process and lead to disengagement and alienation.
Throughout history, Americans have fought to expand the right to vote. March 7 marks the anniversary of the March on Selma. Hundreds and then thousands marched to register Black voters despite facing tear gas, night sticks and even whips. But that did not stop them. Their efforts to end disenfranchisement led to the national Voting Rights Act.
We won’t stop fighting to restore the vote, either. We share the bedrock belief that every Minnesotan — and every American — deserves to have a voice in how our society governs itself.
Our movement is growing. More than 90 organizations from across the state have joined Restore the Vote Minnesota. And HF 40/SF 856 is gaining bipartisan support.
By ensuring all free Minnesotans have the opportunity to have their voices heard and their votes counted, no matter their past mistakes, we enrich our democracy and bring ourselves closer to the ideal of a state of, by and for the people.
It’s time to make Minnesota a place where democracy includes all of us.
John Gordon is the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota.
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