A state law that prevents felons from voting after they leave prison has created a logjam of unnecessary investigations and should be repealed, Washington County Attorney Pete Orput said last week.
Orput asked county commissioners to support a bill in the Legislature that would restore voting rights to Minnesota felons after their release.
“Let’s simplify the law,” he said. “There are entirely too many misunderstandings.”
Currently, the law forbids felons from voting while on probation and on parole and during other types of post-prison supervision. It also requires investigations of reported violations, which preoccupies law enforcement officers and prosecutors and clogs the courts, Orput said.
More than 400 allegations of voting fraud by felons have been reported to Orput since he took office in 2011. Of those, 45 were “generally called voter fraud,” but no fraud was found, he said.
“Invariably every one of the felons said, ‘I thought I was off probation and I didn’t know,’ ” Orput told the County Board. Because he has no investigators in his office to look into the allegations, the Sheriff’s Office and city police departments do that work, taking time from more urgent matters, he said.
“For me it’s pulled a lot of cops off the streets, investigating the crimes that we deal with every day, to look into whether or not someone was still in some form of supervision,” Orput said.
The bipartisan legislation, authored by Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis, would put Minnesota in line with 18 other states that grant voting rights to felons who are on probation or parole. Under current law, Minnesota’s 47,000 felons under post-release supervision can’t vote until they’re “off paper” — a process that can take years.
The push to restore voting rights for felons has surfaced sporadically since 2002 and was renewed in 2014 by a group of nonprofits working as the Restore the Vote coalition. However, efforts in recent years have stalled.
Orput said any allegation of voter fraud “deserves an aggressive investigation,” but state law as written discourages a current trend toward more restorative justice among felons.
“Get these folks back on track, back participating in civics,” he told county commissioners. “The best way for them to do that is to get a job and vote. If we preclude them from voting they feel alienated and that might anecdotally result in them continuing to commit crimes because they don’t feel they have a stake in society.”
Commissioners didn’t vote on Orput’s call for County Board support, but seemed in favor of it.
“What you’re suggesting breaks down some of the bureaucracy, allows for restorative justice to occur and people to become engaged in civic life again,” said Commissioner Fran Miron. “I think that needs to be our underlying goal here.”
Another commissioner, Gary Kriesel, also signaled his support.
“This is an avenue for people who made a mistake in their life … it’s recognition that they’re on the right path,” he said.
Currently, Orput said, it’s a felony for someone on probation to vote — or even register to vote.
“There was a lot of pressure from the judiciary and a strong sense of fairness that all we’re doing is impeding people from getting back into society and being productive,” he said.
Orput’s request, in the form of a resolution supporting the bipartisan legislation, will go before the County Board for a vote as soon as Tuesday.