There are too many questions about felons casting ballots.
A steady stream of Burnsville voters from 7 precincts filed into the Gym at Vista View Elementary school to vote on renewing an existing levy, which was first approved in 2001. The levy generates about $10 million a year or $845.68 per pupil. Revenue generated by the levy is used for day-to-day operational expenses. The district cannot use the money to fund construction projects or capital improvements.
In yet another case of a solution in search of a problem, state lawmakers are discussing a proposed constitutional amendment to require photo identification to vote. Minnesota has the highest voter-turnout rates in the nation and no evidence of a voter fraud problem -- certainly not one that rises to the level of amending the Constitution.
But there is one part of the state's voter-registration laws that needs work -- the overly complicated series of rules about when and whether felons can vote.
Under current regulations, some felons are under the jurisdiction of the Department of Corrections, others report to county probation officers and still others answer directly to the court. In Minnesota, a convicted felon generally loses the right to vote when sentenced, incarcerated or on probation.
Yet those rights can be restored in a variety of ways. Probation can be suspended or reduced, or a convicted person can be diverted to a rehabilitation program. Some felons don't have to see their probation officers for years, giving them the impression that they are eligible to vote. That range of exceptions creates considerable confusion.
For the past several months, a state task force on election integrity has studied the problem. The group found that in 2008 about 100 felons were charged with voting improperly. In several hundred additional cases, confusion about the rules caused felons who were ineligible to vote to cast a ballot.
The task force took a preliminary look at the smart, understandable system that North Dakota and 13 other states have adopted. In those states, felons cannot vote while they are incarcerated, but they regain their voting rights when they are released -- whether or not they are on probation.
Though there was great interest in that model, the group opted to continue to study the option for the next few months. In the meantime, they issued sensible suggestions that could help everyone involved better understand the current system. Their legislative recommendations include:
•Requiring written notification to felons when their voting rights have been restored.
•Sharing data on those currently serving felony sentences before and after elections to flag those who should not be voting.
•Prohibiting absentee ballots from being sent or delivered to a facility that only houses felony-level offenders.
•Including plain language on voter-registration applications and on polling-place rosters regarding voting rights of felons under Minnesota law.
Several other practical improvements would not require legislation, such as encouraging judges and probation officers to more effectively communicate the rules.
All those steps have merit, but a better solution would be to move toward the simpler North Dakota model. Studies have shown that felons who are out of jail and part of the community feel more connected to their communities and are less likely to reoffend.
As task force member Secretary of State Mark Ritchie said, "This approach has a lot of benefits. It would be easier to administer, would save local governments money -- and studies show it would reduce recidivism by helping to integrate felons in the community.''
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