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How a bill does not become law: behind the mysterious death of a bipartisan measure to restore felon voting rights

MinnPost file photo by James Nord
State Rep. Tony Cornish: “I always carry controversial bills … but I don’t ever want to jam them down the throats of people I serve with.”

If political insiders ever want to know why so much of the public cares so little for the machinations of our current system, you could do worse than point to the tortured path of the restore the vote bill currently before the Minnesota Legislature. 

On one side of the issue, you have Rep. Tony Cornish, a lawman and gun rights advocate who represents Vernon Center in the Minnesota House and co-author of the bill, which would restore voting rights to felons who have completed their time behind bars but are still on probationary status.

On the other side of the issue? Also Rep. Tony Cornish — the one who’s the chairman of the House Public Safety Committee and who refuses to let his committee hear the bill he helped write.

Ah, politics.

“I always carry controversial bills … but I don’t ever want to jam them down the throats of people I serve with,” he said, by which he means fellow Republicans. “I hate to put people on the spot.”

Cornish says the “restore the vote” bill, which seemed to have so much steam in the opening days of the session, isn’t going anywhere this session. Not surprisingly, the two-faced handling of a bill that seems to have considerable support among both Democrats and Republicans is leaving supporters of the measure surprised, mystified and disgusted.

“You think you’re doing everything right,” said Mark Haase, the co-chairman of the Restore the Vote coalition. “You get all these different groups on board. You get support from both parties and then you hear, ‘We’re going to do it.’ What the hell?”

That’s sort of how Rep. Ray Dehn, DFL-Minneapolis, feels. He was co-author, with Cornish, of the bill. That these two, the conservative rural Republican and the urban DFL progressive, were pushing for the same thing seemed like one of those rare times of true bipartisanship.

“I believe this is one of those issues that if members felt free to just vote their conscience it would easily pass,” Dehn said. “But sometimes, it’s hard to figure out what’s going on around here.”

The Senate, with some GOP support, passed the measure as part of an omnibus public safety bill a few days ago. That raised hopes among supporters that Minnesota would join 20 other states in opening voting booths to those who have served their time. Supporters rallied at the capitol Wednesday, trying to twist GOP arms.

George Gibson
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
George Gibson, a convicted federal felon, spoke in favor of voting rights for other released felons at Wednesday’s rally at the state Capitol.

But the House hasn’t budged on the bill, and House Speaker Kurt Daudt has been silent on what’s going on behind the scenes.

Cornish is among the first to say that getting felons who have served their time into the mainstream is good public policy. “Statistics show that the more you bring those people (felons who have served their time) into the community, the less likely it is they will re-offend,” Cornish said. “But there are still people who think that probation is part of the punishment. I don’t see it that way. I say if somebody is safe enough to be brought into the community, let’s make sure that person is not isolated, that he’s made to feel welcome.”

This is not some marginal issue. There are 47,000 people in the state who have served sentences but remain on probation or parole. Public perceptions to the contrary, two-thirds of those people live outside Hennepin and Ramsey Counties, scattered throughout the state. Of the total, 32,827 are white, 9,045 are African American, 2,822 are Hispanic and 2,765 are Native American. 

Randy Anderson, who was wearing a t-shirt that read “Felon,” was among those at Wednesday’s rally. He said he served 54 months in federal prison for a drug conviction, was released in 2009 and had his voting rights restored in 2012.  He figures his road to redemption (at 45, he’s completing work on becoming a drug and alcohol counselor) has been easier than it is for many who leave prison.

“I’m white, and understand all the breaks that means,” Anderson said. “But still there are obstacles for any felon. Before you get out, you’re constantly told get a job and pay your taxes. But it’s frustrating when you can’t vote. You feel like it’s taxation without representation. It’s just one more thing that sets you apart.”

Anderson said he has been on an emotional roller coaster watching the process. There was excitement and optimism early in the session, then despair, then hope again when the measure passed in the Senate. Even in the wake of the Public Safety Committee’s non-action, there remains some hope.

Terencio Stafford
MinnPost photo by Briana Bierschbach
Terencio Safford, on probation for another five years and cannot vote, spoke at the rally about his felony DUI and the long-term rehabilitation program he completed.

The small sense of optimism centers on the possibility that the restoration portion of the Senate omnibus public safety bill will get through conference committee and on to the floor of the House. But Cornish says that’s not going to happen.

“We (the Republican caucus) are not comfortable with it yet,” Cornish said. “It’s still a year or two away.”

So again, why was he the co-author of a bill he won’t let his committee hear?

“I just wanted to get the conversation going,’‘ he said. “I wanted to move us in that direction.’‘

Dehn shakes his head when hearing this. Restoring voting rights to felons is not a new subject at the Capitol, but it never has had such a wide spectrum of support as now. But it’s been killed with legislative silence. “There are people who have completed their sentences, gone back to their communities, gotten a job, gone to college, raised a family, sent their kids to school and never have had the chance to even vote for a member of the school board,” he said. “Does that make sense?”

Comments (15)

  1. Submitted by John Deitering on 04/30/2015 - 10:03 am.

    Vote for felons

    If this was an issue that was about carrying a gun ANYWHERE IN THE STATE, I guarantee you that tony Cornish would make sure it came to pass

  2. Submitted by James Hamilton on 04/30/2015 - 10:13 am.

    Justice delayed

    is justice denied.

    “We (the Republican caucus) are not comfortable with it yet,” Cornish said. “It’s still a year or two away.”

  3. Submitted by Tim Walker on 04/30/2015 - 11:10 am.

    So, I wonder if Rep. Cornish ever had any intention of giving the bill a hearing.

    Of if he just carried the bill because he’s presumably going to get less grief by killing his own bill than he would if somebody else sponsored it.

    I really believe that he’s been disingenuous from the start, because by sponsoring the bill, its supporters (both legislators and lobbyists) could — falsely, as it turned out — relax because, hey, the sponsor of the bill is the chair of the committee it’s going to be heard in!

    Me thinks the Rep doth protest too much …

    • Submitted by Logan Foreman on 04/30/2015 - 03:02 pm.

      Probably not

      He probably just didn’t want a legislator not under his control carry this bill. Stupid policy? Yes

  4. Submitted by Roger Clegg on 04/30/2015 - 12:44 pm.

    Felons still on parole/probation should NOT be re-enfranchised

    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 certainly not when the felon has not even finished completing his parole/probation, which is what the bill at issue here would do! After all, the unfortunate truth is that most people who walk out of prison will be walking back in.

    • Submitted by Paul John Martin on 04/30/2015 - 01:13 pm.

      The right to vote

      is ours because we are citizens. It does not have to be earned. If one is serving time for a felony, it is temporarily suspended. It should be restored when the sentence is completed, and the person is restored to the community. And since we know it is true that “most people who walk out of prison will be walking back in,” it makes sense (and is only just) that we as a society do all we can to help their reentry.

    • Submitted by Bill Willy on 04/30/2015 - 01:28 pm.

      You may have missed this part…

      “Cornish is among the first to say that getting felons who have served their time into the mainstream is good public policy. ‘Statistics show that the more you bring those people (felons who have served their time) into the community, the less likely it is they will re-offend,'”

      Since you said, “After all, the unfortunate truth is that most people who walk out of prison will be walking back in,” I’m sure you’d agree that anything a community can do to lower the rate at which people re-offend, the safer and better that community will be.

      And allowing people to vote seems a safe, non-threatening thing to allow people to do. Even if it’s viewed as having “a role in making the law for everyone else” it’s not as though anyone would be voting for, or helping make, laws that threaten anyone’s well-being.

      Other than “lessening the degree of post-incarceration punishment,” (or politician’s fear of not appearing tough enough on crime), I guess I don’t understand the reluctance.

    • Submitted by Eric Ferguson on 05/02/2015 - 12:59 am.

      You look at voting as a reward

      But I was taught that voting is duty, It’s one of those things good citizens are expected to do. If you want released felons to do what good citizens do, you should be expecting them to vote, not objecting to it.

  5. Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 04/30/2015 - 03:33 pm.

    Where does it stop?

    Why stop at felonies? How about misdemeanors and traffic violations. We all know that once a speeder, always a speeder and speeders should be allowed to vote on speeding laws. Punishments are designed to fit the crime. Once your punishment is served you should be as new. What about people with juvenile records? And even if they don’t have a record how do we know they are equipped to vote the way we want them to. Do we leave it to Roger to measure when a new leaf has been turned?

    • Submitted by Donald Larsson on 04/30/2015 - 07:28 pm.

      And why stop at mere convictions?

      Shakespeare–though no (small r) republican, let alone (small d) democra– knew a slippery slope when he saw one:

      ” . . . use every man after his desert, and who should ‘scape whipping?” (Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2)

      Those were tougher times, of course, but you get the point.

  6. Submitted by Tom Anderson on 04/30/2015 - 09:08 pm.

    Seems like Sunday liquor sales

    Most everyone wants it, can’t come close to getting it passed.

    Probation IS part of the sentence people, please don’t forget that. Probation is often the only sentence for many crimes so this shouldn’t be hard to understand.

    • Submitted by Bill Schletzer on 05/01/2015 - 08:05 am.


      So not a very serious crime if all you got was probation. I fail to see the connection between probation and a citizen’s right to vote. So, DWI and suspended license means you lose your right to vote?

    • Submitted by Gregg Peppin on 05/01/2015 - 08:06 am.

      Probation is part of the sentence felons serve

      Tom Anderson is correct. A convicted felon hasn’t completed their sentence until they ALSO complete the probation included with that sentence. Supporters should turn their attention to making changes to the sentencing guidelines or judicial rulings that have lengthened the probationary periods. Of course Doug Grow’s simplistic “bash the GOP” article makes no mention of this. Shoddy reporting once again from Grow.

  7. Submitted by Russ Heuckendorf on 05/01/2015 - 09:01 am.

    Restore the Vote

    How about a little reporting on who exactly is blocking this eminently sane policy change?

  8. Submitted by Ilya Gutman on 05/07/2015 - 08:37 pm.

    What is fair?

    So it is unfair that felons on parole work and pay taxes but can’t vote? But how about legal immigrants and refugees who also work and pay taxes but can’t vote even though, unlike felons, they have not committed any crime? And of course all those examples of good former felons working and being good members of the community are just examples because there are plenty of other felons who don’t work and reoffend… But this bill will not distinguish and will let those bad guys vote, too…

    And by the way, parole and probation are still a part of the sentence so until they are served a person is not considered to complete his or her sentence…

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