It was a sight not often seen at the state Capitol. Standing together Thursday morning were such unlikely allies as Rep. Jerry Hertaus, R-Greenfield; Rep. Ray Dehn, DFL-Minneapolis; Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis; Sen. Dan Hall, R-Burnsville; and the Rev. Jerry McAfee, pastor at New Salem Baptist Church.
There were Democrats and Republicans; libertarians and liberals; conservatives, ex-cons, county attorneys, white people and black people.
What brought this odd group together is a push to restore voting rights to 47,000 people who live in Minnesota but are unable to vote because they have felony convictions. Under current Minnesota law, felons can’t vote when they leave prison, but must wait until all elements of their sentences — parole, probation or conditional release — have been fulfilled.
The bill the group would like to see pass would change that. It would restore voting rights to felons upon the completion of their prison terms.
Given the huge cross section of legislators pushing for the change, it seems that it will be a slam-dunk to pass. But, of course, nothing is certain at the Legislature. And there is this reality: The push to make the change has been going on for a decade.
So why might the outcome be different this time?
There was another startling moment at Thursday morning’s news event announcing the new push. Over time, even legislators can change their minds.
Hall, the senator from Burnsville, is one of the most consistently conservative voices in St. Paul. But in the last year, he said he’s changed his mind on the issue. “I talked to a lot of people and started looking at this from a different perspective,’’ Hall said. “Historically, when you look at who the felons were a long time ago, well, they typically were hard, hard people. Today, so many of the people we’re talking about were involved in drug offenses. They made mistakes, they served their time.’’
Hall said it’s not only the felons who are impacted by the law that takes away voting rights. It’s the families of those who aren’t allowed to vote. “When their father can’t vote, even their kids feel that there is something different about them,’’ Hall said. “That’s just not right.’’
On Thursday, all sorts of statements were made for why convicted felons, who have served their prison time, should be allowed to vote, ranging from passionate statements about forgiveness to logical statements about economics.
Recall the charges of voter fraud surrounding the Senate race between Al Franken and incumbent Norm Coleman in 2008? A now-defunct organization, Minnesota Majority, insisted that it had uncovered large numbers of individuals who had voted illegally in that race.
Hennepin County attorney Mike Freeman said his office spent more than $100,000 investigating those charges. In the end, there were 28 cases of cases of people who shouldn’t have voted. Those cases involved people who had been released from prison but didn’t know that they did not have the right to vote. After the dust had settled, those who had fraudulently voted were sentenced to community service.
“It was all a waste of time,’’ said Freeman. “That money, that time, could have been spent on important public safety issues.’’
As it stands, said Freeman, there is no “bright line’’ separating those who are eligible to vote and those who aren’t. Simply returning the right to vote to those who leave prison would create the bright line.
Freeman isn’t alone in believing it’s time for a change in law. Who can vote, who can’t, isn’t just a metro problem. According to statistics compiled by Restore the Vote, the organization that has worked doggedly to change the law, 65 percent of the 47,000 who aren’t allowed to vote live outside Hennepin and Ramsey Counties. The racial breakdown looks like this, according to Restore the Vote: 69 per cent of those who can’t vote under current law are white, 19 per cent are black, 6 per cent are Hispanic and 5.8 per cent are Native American.
Again this session, legislators will hear powerful testimony about the scar that current law inflicts. They’ll hear from people such as Jason Sole, who, as a young man in Illinois, was a three-time felon. Now 36, Sole is married, the father of three, an assistant professor at Metropolitan State University, a taxpayer, a national expert/speaker/consultant on a variety of social issues. And yet he still can’t vote in Minnesota. “I will not be eligible to vote until 2026,’’ said Sole. “Every November, I’m reminded I’m not a full citizen.’’
McAfee, the Baptist preacher and longtime civil rights activist, gave a mini-sermon that had conservatives and progressives in the group all but saying amen. “There’s no religion I know of that teaches perpetual punishment,’’ McAfee said. “From a Biblical standpoint we know that all of us have sinned and fallen short.’’
Champion is the lead on the Senate fight, while a man who is his political, racial and geographic opposite, Tony Cornish, will lead on the House side.