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Around the country, restoring felons’ voting rights is often a bipartisan issue. Not in Minnesota.

Few issues divide DFLers and Republicans at the Minnesota Legislature these days more than the push to allow convicted felons the right to vote once they are no longer incarcerated.

Anika Bowie, chair of the Restore the Vote Coalition, speaking at a press conference last week.
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan

Few issues facing the 2019 Minnesota Legislature do a better job of highlighting the political and philosophical differences between DFLers and Republicans than “Restore the Vote,” the push to allow those convicted of felonies the right to vote once they are no longer incarcerated.

DFL leaders and several key constituency groups have made it central to a social and racial justice agenda. A bill in the Minnesota House, House File 40, would draw a clear line between which people convicted of felonies could vote and which could not: If you are in prison or jail, you wouldn’t be able to; but if you’re released — even if you are still under state supervision — you would be able to vote.

After a press conference on the issue Thursday, St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter said there was no defensible reason to deny voting rights to those who have served their prison sentences. “These are people we say are fit to sit on a city bus with our grandparents, who are fit to walk in our neighborhoods, who are fit to be in the grocery store next to our children, but who we are saying are unfit to vote,” Carter said. “It is arbitrary, and there’s no good reason to say our communities are better off.”

The issue is on the move in the DFL-controlled House. Not so in the GOP-controlled Senate. The House is expected to pass HF 40 along with a measure to restrict overly long probation periods that could help thousands of felons — even if the vote restoration bill doesn’t. The Senate is unlikely to hear either bill.

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Backers of the legislation cite state statistics that show that more than 53,000 people in Minnesota are not eligible to vote because they are on probation, parole or supervised release. Of the 52,000 who might benefit, 69 percent are white and 24 percent are African-American.

Rob Stewart is a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Minnesota who was not able to vote for years after being imprisoned and released on probation for a drug crime. “Anyone with a felony record will all tell you that everything in life gets harder,” Stewart told the Minnesota House Public Safety Committee last week. “Trying to find someone who will hire you, somebody who will rent to you or even a college that will accept you. And on top of that you can’t vote.”

St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter speaking to Senate companion bill author Sen. Bobby Joe Champion
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
St. Paul Mayor Melvin Carter speaking to Senate companion bill author Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis, after a recent press conference.
Stewart, who is now married and father to a 16-month-old child and another on the way, is studying the reintegration of people into society after incarceration. “Thing are going well,” he said. “But I can honestly say it wasn’t until I finally got my right to vote back that I started to feel whole again.”

A priority for DFLers

The author of HF 40, Rep. Raymond Dehn, DFL-Minneapolis, often starts his presentations on his bill with his own story. He was convicted and jailed for a burglary related to drug use at age 19. He later had to ask for a pardon to allow him to vote and to run for office.

Minnesota would be the 15th state (plus Washington, D.C.) to reinstate voting rights if it passed the bill.  About half of the 6 million people in the U.S. who can’t vote because of felony convictions are banned from doing so not just while in prison or on probation but for an additional waiting period — or permanently, accord to an analysis by Politifact. Two states, Maine and Vermont, never take voting rights away, even for those in prison. In November, Florida voters adopted a constitutional amendment to restore voting rights for an estimated 600,000 ex-felons in that state.

Proponents also say many people who are no longer under supervision in Minnesota — and are therefore legally eligible to vote — remain confused about their rights. Dehn said when he is told by a person on the doorstep who says they can’t vote because of a past felony, he always asks if they are still on probation. But even when they say no and are told that they can now vote, they often say, “I don’t want to risk it.”

State Rep. Raymond Dehn
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
The author of HF 40, Rep. Raymond Dehn, center, often starts his presentations on his bill with his own story.
Restoring the vote also is a priority of Gov. Tim Walz’s administration. The governor named Sarah Walker, a longtime advocate for criminal justice reform, as deputy commissioner of corrections. At a rally for Second Chance, an organization she co-founded, Walker said: “Over 10 years ago we were nervous about having a day on the hill. We weren’t sure how it would go over.”

Since then, Walker said progress has been made on reducing drug sentences, and banning the box on employment applications that asks about criminal history. But on felon voting, she said: “We continue to lag behind.”

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Gwen Walz has made felon voting rights one of the issues she is working on as first lady, and last month she spoke at the 11th annual Second Chance Day. It was her first appearance on any issue since her husband was sworn in as governor, and she encouraged those who attended to tell their personal stories about their lives after prison. “I think stories are so important because they help us understand the humanity behind what might just look like an issue,” Walz said. “Until we are all equal and have equality, none of us are equal and have equality.”

Republicans: not so fast

But what appears clear to DFLers is not for leading Republicans. Before HF 40 was approved by the House Public Safety Committee, the leading Republican on the panel said the state has longer probationary periods than most states because it has shorter prison sentences. Both aspects of sentencing, said Rep. Brian Johnson of Cambridge, are part of the punishment for committing crimes in Minnesota. 

“Part of your felony sentence was served in incarceration and part of your sentence was ‘on paper,’” Johnson said, using the term often used to denote being on probation. “Yes, we have the sixth-longest time on paper, on probation. Maybe we need to look at that. But we are the third-shortest in incarceration.”

Senate Judiciary committee chair Warren Limmer
MinnPost photo by Peter Callaghan
Senate Judiciary committee chair Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove: “I’m not interested in felon voting.”
The House version does have some GOP cosponsors. But the Senate’s companion bill (SF 856), authored by Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis, does not. And while the House bill has already cleared three committees and is awaiting approval by the Ways and Means Committee, the Senate bill has gotten no action in the Judiciary and Public Safety committee.

And it’s not likely to this session. “I’m not interested in felon voting,” said Senate Judiciary committee chair Warren Limmer, R-Maple Grove. “I’m more concerned with victims rather than felons.”

Room for compromise?

One area where compromise appears possible is reducing the time period that people convicted of crimes spend on probation in Minnesota. If probation ends earlier, voting rights are restored sooner.

Another bill in the House, HF 689, would cap probation supervision at five years, except for those convicted of murder or sexual assault. The issue has bipartisan sponsorship and has the support of Americans for Prosperity Minnesota, the state affiliate of the libertarian-conservative advocacy organization founded by David and Charles Koch. A national organization with Republican roots, the Justice Action Network, recently backed a poll of Minnesota voters that indicated broad support for probation reform.

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Backers of the bills often talk about the case of Jennifer Schroder as an example of out-of-whack probation terms. Schroder was sentenced in Wright County, northwest of the Twin Cities, for a nonviolent drug offense. She spent one year in county jail, but she was also given a post-release probation period of 40 years. “That means until I am 71 years old I have the potential for going  to prison for 10 years for anything a judge can say violates probation,” she said. The soonest Schroder can even apply to get off probation is in 20 years.

After she got out of jail, she earned a college degree and is now a drug and alcohol counselor. But still has struggles to get work, to obtain housing and applying for credit. She said she often works as a counselor for people with far less probation time than she has. And she can’t vote. “I have to ask: When is the point — when what you have done and what you are continuing to do —  is enough to say that you are fully a member of society again?” Schroder said.

Limmer is more open to looking at probation reform, but not this session. “I’m intrigued by the very long sentences, to determine why,” Limmer said. “I would prefer studying it over the interim and try to approach it comprehensively.”

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
MinnPost file photo by Briana Bierschbach
Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka
And he does not favor the House bill. “On first blush, a five-year, one-size fits all probation model is something I am not in agreement with. We have criminal sentences that are based on proportionality: the more severe the crime, the more severe the punishment. A one-size fits all probation model ignores proportionality.”

Senate Majority Leader Paul Gazelka, R-Nisswa, said he also would like to examine the issue, even though he opposes the felon voting restoration bill. Probation is part of an offender’s sentence, he said.  “That’s why I’m hesitant to do felon voting within that period,” Gazelka said. “But that’s just part of it. We can consider lowering the probation period. That would be something we should look at. We can look at what are some of the reasons people are in jail for — related to drugs, for example. Should that be more lenient? It’s a bigger discussion then just voting during probationary periods.

“One of the things we’re going to look at are what are the things that help people who have been felons mainstream back into society,” Gazelka said. “I’m open to the probation period. Some of them are very long, and I think we should look at shrinking those long probation periods so they can mainstream sooner.”

But St. Paul Mayor Carter said reform advocates shouldn’t compromise on felon voting rights in order to win on probation reform. “I reject the notion that we should pick one or the other; neither one of those laws make sense,” he said. “We should overturn them both.”

Who gets the votes?

No issue that determines who votes — and who doesn’t — can escape a political analysis these days, and felon voting rights is no different.

One study, co-authored by Christopher Uggen, a professor of  sociology and law at the University of Minnesota, found that Democratic candidates would benefit more if felons barred from voting could legally vote. Another analysis of voting data, however, found more mixed results.

Proponents are sensitive to having their efforts seem overtly partisan. Second Chance co-founder Walker, perhaps responding to stereotypes that most felons are from the cities and from the counties that vote heavily for DFL candidates, noted that 65 percent of those who would benefit from the reform measures live outside Hennepin and Ramsey counties. Probation lengths tend to be longer in rural counties than in the larger cities.

During a House committee, former state Supreme Court Justice Paul Anderson said he didn’t see restoration as a partisan issue. “I know these people. I have reviewed their records,” Anderson said. “They are as likely to vote Republican as vote Democrat and I can cite you statistics and studies that show that.

“So don’t treat it as a partisan issue, treat it as a policy issue,” he said.