Nick Coleman: Felons flipped an election? Unbelievable.

  • Article by: NICK COLEMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: July 17, 2010 - 9:06 PM

No, literally -- unbelievable. But good fodder for a right-wing scare campaign.

I believe that felons voted illegally in the last governor's election, helping Tim Pawlenty defeat his crime-busting DFL foe, Attorney General Mike Hatch, by less than 1 percent of the votes in the 2006 contest, the closest Minnesota governor's race in years.

I have not one jot or tittle of evidence to support my suspicions. But a lack of credible evidence did not stop Pawlenty when he used one of his frequent national TV appearances -- where he is seldom pestered by journalists with actual knowledge of events on the ground back here in Flyover Land -- to renew the stench of uncertainty over the Al Franken-Norm Coleman U.S. Senate recount.

Making a stink was Pawlenty's intention, as well as the purpose of a far-right group that, in a transparent bit of wishful thinking, calls itself "Minnesota Majority."

Begun by former Secretary of State Mary Kiffmeyer (now a Republican state representative from Big Lake), Minnesota Majority wants to raise doubts about the integrity of the state's election system and was not deterred by the painstaking Coleman-Franken recount, which revealed that our system may be troubled by minor flaws and human error but is free of the corruption that plagues many states.

If you can't find a bogeyman, however, you can invent one. Minnesota Majority, which also has earned attention for claiming that public schools are promoting homosexuality and suggesting that America's high infant-mortality rates are due to a lack of "racial purity," charged last week that a small number of felons illegally voted in 2008, implying that crooks put felon-friendly Al Franken over the top.

There already were enough nasty leftovers from the ugly Senate campaign to last a lifetime without dragging felons into it. What's up next? Dead nuns?

Minnesota Majority deserves credit for finding a few hundred people who may have voted while they were still on parole or probation and thus not eligible to vote. Well done, lads! But this was not a public service. It was a political stunt.

No one can know how the felons voted, or whether they made a difference or even cared about the Senate race. More than 400,000 Minnesotans skipped the Senate race while voting for president in 2008, so all we know for sure is that a lot of law-abiding citizens held their noses and didn't vote for Franken or Coleman.

Many people misunderstand the felon issue, which is being distorted by those who are flogging it for political purposes. A person convicted of a felony is not permanently barred from the voting booth. As soon as he is released from parole or probation, his citizenship rights are fully restored. News anchors and talking heads should be more precise: Former felons can vote. And requiring photo ID at the polls won't help much: Even felons can have driver's licenses.

Changing state law to establish some kind of registry of people currently barred from voting might have some merit. But this country already is close to creating a popular counterculture of felons. It may be only a matter of time until the kind of crowded social club that I visited once in Belfast springs up here: It was called The Felons Club. To be a member, you had to be a former IRA prisoner.

Is there a felon problem in this country? You bet: We have far too many felons, and too many people can't vote. More than 7 million Americans were in prison or on probation or parole in 2008 -- 3 percent of all adults and more than any other country. Since most are minorities or poor, a significant constituency in the country is disenfranchised by our high incarceration rates and long-term prison sentences.

But save that argument for another day. The weeklong PR campaign alleging that the Coleman-Franken race was affected by a small group of people who may not have been eligible was as unsubstantiated and irresponsible as it was highly orchestrated, from screaming headlines on Fox News to Pawlenty's political pandering to the GOP chair demanding that all 87 counties round up the usual suspects.

Pawlenty dived lowest, telling Fox: "I suspect they favored Al Franken. I don't know that, but if that turned out to be true, they may have flipped the election."

The only meaningful thing he said: "I don't know that."

The bottom line is that a deeply conservative group that has been trying for years to cast doubts on Minnesota elections finally found a small but real problem. Even a blind pig finds a peanut now and then.

Is it a problem that should be investigated more fully? Yes, sure.

Is it a big enough issue to make the 2008 election not only painful, but illegitimate?

Not by a long shot.

Nick Coleman is a senior fellow at the Eugene J. McCarthy Center for Public Policy & Civic Engagement at the College of St. Benedict/St. John's University. He can be reached at nickcolemanmn@gmail.com.

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