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Rob Stewart: Restoring voting rights to ex-felons strengthens communities

When a community says, “You can vote,” that’s basically saying, “You’re an important, valuable part of this community,” says Stewart.

Since 2011, Rob Stewart has been active with the voting rights group Minnesota Second Chance Coalition, advocating for changes to state voting laws.
Photo by Patrick O'Leary

Rob Stewart’s journey with addiction began when he was a 15-year-old high school student growing up in Owatonna. It culminated in 2007 with his arrest and felony conviction of first-degree possession of cocaine and methamphetamine with an intent to sell.

Stewart, who’d been arrested on drug charges before, was sentenced to 100 months of correctional control in February 2008. He was 27 years old. He served his time through a combination of incarceration and supervised release.

One could say that Stewart grew up during his incarceration, attending AA and NA meetings and Bible studies, committing to sobriety, taking correspondence courses, tutoring his fellow inmates and mending fences with his family. He also developed a keen sense of what he perceived as the injustice of state laws that restrict people convicted of felonies from voting in state and national elections until they have completed the full terms of their paroles.

Stewart believes that his middle-class upraising and strong family support meant that he was successfully able to make the transition from prison to the real world, eventually enrolling at the University of Minnesota and earning his bachelor’s degree in sociology of law, criminality and deviance in 2012. He’s on track to complete is Ph.D. in sociology with a focus on punishment, law and crime in 2017. This is not the case for the majority of his fellow inmates.

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“Not everybody is set up with the same set of skills to succeed,” he said. “Look at my situation: When I was released in 2009, I returned to a good, supportive family that was willing to help me get back on my feet. That has made a lot of the difference with the success that I’ve had post-prison, compared with my peers who didn’t have a family that was able to be supportive emotionally and financially.”

Since 2011, Stewart has been active with the voting rights group Minnesota Second Chance Coalition, advocating for changes to state voting laws. He believes that granting voting rights to those leaving the state’s penal system will help level the playing field and increase the health of communities through involvement and activism.  

I met Stewart this spring while I was writing an article for Minnesota, the University of Minnesota Alumni Association magazine; he agreed to expand on his thoughts about felon voting rights for MinnPost.

MinnPost: You have nearly completed your sentence and will be able to vote later this year. Why are you continuing to advocate the voting rights of other former felons?

Rob Stewart: The American penal system was based on the belief that people can redeem themselves, so if we support that concept, we should give former felons the opportunity to rejoin society. It comes down to basic fairness. The more people that can vote the better. When people are involved in having a say in their community, they feel tied to that community. I think that could only have positive benefits.

MP: You were raised in a family that emphasized voting, but you haven’t been able to vote since your felony arrest in 2006. What does feel like to not be able to vote?

RS: When it’s the first Tuesday in November and everybody else is walking around with a little red sticker that says, “I Voted,” but you can’t, because you’ve been convicted of a felony, it’s a pretty depressing experience. The ability to vote conveys a signal of inclusion. When a community says, “You can vote,” that’s basically saying, “You’re an important, valuable part of this community.” That’s a message more of us need to hear.

MP: How does the state of Minnesota restrict voting rights for felons? 

RS: Current Minnesota law says that if you are under sentence you can’t vote. “Under sentencing” means the time spent in jail or prison and the time out in the community on parole. Minnesota has some of the longest probation sentences in the country. We have thousands of people every year who are sentenced to decades of probation. I understand that people should be punished for their crimes, but at the same time I would ask: “What is the utility of restricting somebody from participating in the civic process? What’s the utility of that punishment? What good does that do?”

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MP: How are voting rights a racial issue in Minnesota?

RS: One of five African-American males in Minnesota can’t vote because they are on probation. This is a serious racial issue: Large communities of people aren’t represented in the body politic. In certain areas of Minneapolis that are home to large communities of people of color, a large number of citizens there aren’t getting a say on how things are run in their community. And if parents can’t vote, the message gets passed on to their children. I think voting is one of those behaviors that you learn through your family. If your parents voted a lot, then you’ll vote. You’ll see the importance and you’ll believe that you have power in your community. Children whose parents can’t vote are less likely to vote when they become adults.

MP: What are some of the arguments people make against granting voting rights to former felons?

RS: There tends to be three main arguments against felon voting rights. The first is the perception that granting voting rights will create this “felon voting block,” this block of felons all voting together that are going to overthrow the government. But that would only be possible if they were all located in the same place in the same senate district. And that’s just not how it is.

A second argument is that this is how it’s always been in our state. But when the Minnesota Constitution was ratified in 1858, there were something like 26 people in prison and they didn’t even have probation. Today there are three-to-four times more crimes at the felony level. Many are nonviolent drug crimes. So many more crimes are criminalized today at the felony level than they were back then.

Another argument against granting felons voting rights is: “We don’t want to rapists and murderers choosing who is going to run the government.” But the fact is if a person has committed some really heinous crime they’re probably going to still be in prison, and if they’re not in prison anymore, then that means that the prison system or the Legislature has said that it’s time for them to be released into society. 

MP: This session, you’re continuing your voting rights advocacy with the Second Chance Coalition. Have you made progress in your goals? 

RS: I’ve done some public forums and spoke at Second Chance conferences. I’ve met with legislators. I’ve never had a legislator say to me, “You’ve lost your right to vote so you shouldn’t vote.” Maybe people are thinking that, but they are not going to say it to my face. My goal is to not make them feel sorry for me. My goal is to say, “I’m somebody who is experiencing this right now and this is my perspective. Consider it with all these other things you are considering and think how this could be better.”  

This year the most ideologically diverse group of people ever are getting behind us in the Legislature. Since I’ve been involved with the Minnesota Second Chance Coalition and Restore the Vote — Minnesota, I’ve seen a progression to the point where people are willing to sit down and talk and think critically about voting rights. This year looks like the best year since I’ve been involved.

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My goal is to try to bring people around to my way of thinking. The other day, I had a long conversation with my grandma. She tried the, “I don’t want rapists and murderers to vote,” argument. We talked about the issues for a long time. I asked her to think critically about the practice. In the end, she said, “I started way over here but now I’m over here, closer to you.” That’s really what we’re trying to do. We’re trying to get people to think critically about some of the things we’re doing and some of the basic rights we take for granted.