The Nov. 6 election results in Florida warrant Minnesota’s attention — and we’re not referring to the races for that state’s governor, U.S. senator and a state commissioner that are undergoing recounts this week. As diverting as that drama might be, Minnesotans should also notice what Florida voters did to restore voting rights to former felons.
The state constitutional amendment that 64 percent of Floridians approved eases what had been one of the nation’s most restrictive barriers to voting by people with felony convictions on their records.
Before the amendment’s adoption, anyone convicted of a crime carrying a prison sentence of one year or greater was permanently disqualified from voting, no matter how long ago their crime was committed or sentence completed. That anti-democratic policy was barring 1.4 million Florida adults — and one in five black Floridians — from the polls.
The change allows those no longer in prison to vote, unless they were convicted of murder or a sexual offense. Even those limits are unjustified for those whose incarceration has ended. Those who have been released to live and work in their communities should be permitted to vote in those communities, too, regardless of their offense.
Criminal voting restrictions are rooted in the racism of the post-Civil War era, when mass incarceration policies in the former Confederacy turned a huge proportion of the freed black population into de facto slave laborers, forever forbidden to vote. Florida wrote felon disenfranchisement into its constitution in 1868. The ugly idea caught on nationally, eventually infecting even slavery-averse Minnesota.
The bar to felons voting in Minnesota statutes has never been as restrictive as Florida’s. People convicted of felony crimes in Minnesota lose the right to vote until they have completed probation and been released from supervision, even if their sentence involved little or no prison time. As of 2011, according to the advocacy coalition Restore the Vote-MN, 47,000 Minnesotans were out of jail or prison and attempting to function as law-abiding citizens, yet were unable to exercise citizenship’s most basic right.
Restore the Vote and its more than 50 Minnesota member organizations have been urging Minnesota to join the 14 states and the District of Columbia that restore voting rights when incarceration ends. Among the virtues of that policy is the end it would bring to confusion about when a former felon becomes eligible to vote. That confusion is responsible for nearly all of the small number of voter fraud cases prosecuted in this state. (Two states, Vermont and Maine, allow felons to vote even while they are behind bars.)
Proposals to end the ban on voting by felons on probation have been introduced in the last several sessions of the Minnesota Legislature and have found some bipartisan backing in the Senate, said Anika Bowie, Restore the Vote-MN’s coordinator. But they’ve been blocked by House Republicans, who controlled that chamber for the past four years.
The prospects for relaxing Minnesota’s felon voting ban appear brighter in light of the Nov. 6 election’s results. A new DFL majority in the state House is expected to be friendlier to the idea, and Republicans have new reason to rethink their opposition. Many GOP voters in Florida were part of the 64 percent majority who cast aside felon voting restrictions. They were registering opposition to their party leaders’ attempts in recent years to diminish democracy in order to win. We suspect many Minnesota Republican voters would concur.
Minnesota is a pro-voting state. That bipartisan sentiment should be reflected in policies that welcome felons back to the electorate when they return to their communities.